Prickly Pear Tequila Sunrise
Here I am holding a prickly pear tequila sunrise cocktail on nearly the shortest day of the year. It is a beautiful drink, with bright fuchsia prickly pear syrup blending into freshly squeezed orange juice like a warm rainbow. It's cold outside, having just come off a week that never got above freezing. The wind seems relentless, and my eyes reflect dull shades of gray and brown. However, with my cactus cocktail in hand, I can only be reminded of that perfect fall day picking prickly pear fruit, just a few months ago.
Wild Food Girl had come down for a visit, and we intended to forage like mad (as always). Despite the fact that we awoke to a hard and icy freeze, the sun was shining, and we set out for our destination, a 100-acre piece of property where we had permission to pick, with intel of vast quantities of prickly pear fruit.
After winding her car down a narrow bumpy dirt road, past low-hanging cottonwood, through an old gate, we followed the directions we had been given - to drive out into the field and go left at the second ridge. It felt a little odd, driving that tiny car out into the prairie, parking it in the middle of a field. Leaving the car behind, "I guess we don't need to lock it?" we hiked our backpacks and buckets out to the left, until we saw a craggy hillside that was blushing with the pink of cactus fruit.
|If you look carefully, you can see Wild Food Girl's car|
Whoa! There were more prickly pear fruit there than either of us had ever seen in the Rockies. Sure, they were the same small Opuntia sp. we usually find in the area, but each leaf was adorned with several fruit so they looked to be crowned like royalty. Surrounded by such a beautiful bounty, even knowing how hard prickly pear fruit are to process, we found it hard to resist heading to the next patch to pick more and more. In all, we picked nearly a full five-gallon bucket between us, and enormous amount of fruit, considering each is about the size of the end of a thumb. We returned home with Wild Food Girl's car packed with wild food. Several time she instructed me, "just stick your head in there and inhale," to indulge in the heady scent of the bucket of prickly pear fruit warmed in the car. We ended the night foraging for chicory root by the light of head lamps, with an elaborate plan to ditch the shovel should the police happen by and think we were burying a body. Despite its icy start, the day warmed with sun and delicious fall breezes, and we both stocked our pantries with wild food. It really was the perfect autumn day.
|Wild Food Girl, admiring the wild produce aisle|
I'm usually not very excited by prickly pear fruit. Between the glochids and the seeds, and given their size here, the work to result ratio is quite low. But this was the year that late spring snows stole away the buds of nearly all the tree fruit (I know, I keep whining, but it really did suck), leaving us with very little in the way of fruit come autumn. I tend to think that I'm not much into fruit because I don't have much of a sweet tooth. But I missed it as a part of the autumn ritual.
And that's how I ended up with a bucket of prickly pears in my garage. I still don't like processing them - for the love of Pete, the glochids! But I'm a wild foods cook, and being able to play with wild foods is essential to my life as breathing.
In the cold of the garage (it's as chilly or more so than a fridge most of the off-season), the prickly pear fruit kept very well, right up into the first of December. It gave me plenty of time to revisit techniques for cleaning the fruit of glochids. If you are wondering what this word means, glochids are the real terror of cacti. The thick spines are what you see upon first inspection, and indeed, you don't want to end up with those embedded in your flesh. I had a cactus spine go through and through one of my toes last spring, and it was not pretty.
Glochids are what you see when you zoom in. They are about the same diameter and color of a red hair, and grow plentifully from both cacti paddles and fruit from little nodes called areoles. You may not be able to see them once they've lodged in your skin, but no doubt you will feel them.
Deep into fall this year, I took a friend who was new to foraging out into the field for a walk. Because it was so stinking cold, we ended up sharing my pair of gloves. When she discovered prickly pear fruit, and with more joy and enthusiasm than I'd ever seen, picked them with her hands (I always use tongs), I didn't have the heart to stop her. Obviously part super-hero, she seemed utterly unfazed by having a few hundred glochids driven into her palms. I, on the other hand, a total wimp, cringed every time I put on that pair of gloves for a month afterward, because I'd have to fish around for the glochids they'd left in my palms and between my fingers.
So, back to the bucket of prickly pear fruit in the garage. After experimenting with both sand and flame to remove glochids, I returned to my preferred method, a combination of a technique I learned from Sam Thayer and my own battles - many rinses, then a good scrub under running water before cutting off the flowering end. This leaves the fruit free of glochids, so that the seeds (which can be eaten, by the way, although they are hard) may be scooped out of the center, and the little slip of flesh that remains can be used in cooking. One of my favorite ways to eat the prickly pear fruit is to simply dry out that little cleaned-out shell. It is one of the best dried fruit I know. Somehow lacking in acid when fresh, they transform into a concentrated blast of tuti-fruity goodness when dried. I ate the dried prickly pear fruit nearly as fast as I could make them.
For the sake of simplicity, most of my prickly pear fruit ended up in syrup. I took a cue from Wild Food Girl, who mashed prickly pear fruit with a meat mallet, then used a heavy pair of gloves to squeeze them through an old t-shirt to avoid the glochids. Being lazier than my buddy, I decided to remove the labor from the mashing step and also see if I could end up with glochid-free juice without murdering one of my t-shirts. The method I came up with is described in the recipe for prickly pear syrup below.
Prickly Pear Syrup
prickly pear fruit
Wash the prickly pear fruit at least three times by submerging them in a deep bowl of water, swishing them around with a spoon (not your bare hand!), and discarding the water. If there still seems to be fine floaty material on the top of the water, give them another rinse.
Using a pair of tongs, transfer the fruit to a cutting board. Using the tongs to hold the fruit, cut the blossom end off. If there are any visible spines sticking out of the fruit, use tweezers to remove them.
Place the prickly pear fruit in a blender. Add enough lime juice so they will process into a liquid. Prickly pear fruit don't really wake up until they are combined with a good deal of acid, so don't be afraid to add a lot of lime juice. Add some sugar, and continue to blend. The amount of sugar you add is up to you. The natural sweetness of the fruit will vary, as will individual tastes. But keep in mind that the sugar will help preserve it in the fridge.
Pour the blended prickly pear fruit through a fine (no joke here, the "fine" part is very important to making certain you don't end up drinking glochids) sieve. Let the juice drip through via gravity, again, in an effort to keep glochids out of the final product. I've made the syrup this way several times and haven't had any run-ins with glochids. In fact, I've never had one in my tongue. But I've had enough of them in my hands to know that I want to use the greatest amount of caution to keep them out of my tongue.
Taste the strained syrup. If you feel like it needs more lime juice or sugar, add more and stir vigorously. If the finished product seems too pulpy, stir in a bit of water. Prickly pear syrup keeps several weeks in the refrigerator.
3/4 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1.5 oz. prickly pear syrup
1.5 oz. tequila
Stir together the orange juice and tequila. Carefully pour the prickly pear syrup into the center of the glass. It will settle into a pink layer on the bottom of the cocktail. Watch out, this cocktail is both pretty and potent.
Orange Slices in Meyer Lemon and Prickly Pear Syrup*skin-free slices of orange
meyer lemon juice
meyer lemon zest
prickly pear syrup
Arrange the orange slices neatly in a bowl. Zest a meyer lemon over them, followed by enough lemon juice and prickly pear syrup to raise the liquid level even with the top of the fruit. If you are using a regular lemon instead of meyer lemon, you may also want to add a spoonful of sugar. Let the oranges marinate in the juices for at least four hours before serving. This dish makes a refreshing side to heavy holiday recipes.
*recipe inspired by my six year old buddy, Giovanni