You might assume that every desert dweller harvests and prepares all our native edible plants, chewing through any spines with our heat-hardened teeth. You would be incorrect. Those prickly spines and glochids put most of us off just as much as the visitor more accustomed to lush grass and soft deciduous foliage. I managed to get through a good many years before summoning up the courage to tackle prickly pear fruits.
Prickly pear fruits ripen in the summer, developing a deep red color and nice fruity flavor. Before you head out to harvest them, however, you should be aware of our native plant laws. Native plants in Arizona are protected by law and cannot be harvested or moved without a permit from the state's Department of Agriculture. It is illegal to harvest even the fruit from city, county, state, and federal lands or roadways. They can be harvested legally from private property with the written permission of the landowner and the state's $25 permit. The good news is the fruits can be harvested from your own property, without a permit, if they are for personal use. Good thing I've got a nice patch o' prickly pears in my yard!
So now that we've got the legal mumbo-jumbo out of the way, let's talk about process. If done with care, harvesting and processing prickly pear fruit will result in very little pain. Carelessness will result in a whole lot of time spent picking painful spines and glochids out of your fingers. Consider this a Zen exercise in patience and attentiveness. Click here to meditate on a magnified view of a glochid.
To gather the fruit from your cactus, get a nice pair of sturdy tongs. I prefer long-handled ones that allow access without getting my hands or arms too close to the poky parts. Grasp the prickly pear fruit, called a tuna in Spanish, firmly and twist to remove. Hopefully your plants will have big plump tunas as they yield more juice per fruit than little ones. The amount of juice you get from the prickly pear fruit depends on the variety and probably the ripeness. A deep dark red color indicates fully ripe fruit; you may even notice some have split open attracting birds to your yard. Don't pass up all of the lighter ones, however; a few not-quite-ripe fruits are good for the jelly.
To clean your fruit, use your tongs to place a few in a colander and give them a quick rinse under the faucet in the kitchen sink. Now, take one fruit at a time and clean the entire surface. You are just cleaning, not trying to remove the spines. Oh, you want to know how to do this without getting a handful of spines? Easy. Stab the tuna with a fork and clean it with a scrubby pad (or the scrubby side of a sponge) or an old toothbrush. Discard the scrubby when you are done with the batch. The toothbrush can be stored to use for the next batch but you won't want to use it for anything else.
Some of the fruit may have white webbing on it. This is from the cochineal scale insect which feeds on the juices of the plant. When dried and crushed, the cochineal insect yields a deep crimson color, which has been used as a fiber dye for thousands of years by natives of the Sonoran Desert. This new dye source was highly prized when returned to Europe by explorers. Although synthetic dyes are now commonly used, some products still use the bug-based dye in cosmetics and food dyes (under the name carmine).
I know you will be shocked - SHOCKED! - that I killed this bug for your education, but please note that it would have drowned anyway while I was cleaning the fruit.
The juice can be extracted from the prickly pear fruit in several different ways. My Canning Guru taught me to cook it out, and I will share that method with you. I've read online that you can also put the fruit in a paper bag in the freezer. Later, place the frozen fruit in a colander over a bowl. As the fruit thaws, evidently it will fall apart and the juice will drip out, to be strained later. Another method involves blending the fresh chopped fruit in a food processor or blender and then straining it.
Since I was planning to make prickly pear syrup and jelly, which involves cooking the juice, there seemed to be no reason not to use the method I was taught. Place the clean fruit on a plastic cutting board and cut in half. (The glochids will stick to wood cutting boards.) Put the cut fruit into a large cooking pot. Continue until you run out of tunas or run out of room in the pot.
Turn the heat on low to medium low. In about 5 minutes, the fruit will start softening up. It's time for your workout. Using a potato masher, begin mashing and crushing the fruit as it cooks and releases its juices. The more you work at this, the more juice you will extract. Since you've gone to the effort to grow your prickly pears and carefully harvest the fruit, you might as well get the maximum amount of edible juice out of them.
When the fruits are thoroughly mashed, it's time to strain out the juice. It is easiest to do this in two steps. First, strain out all the big chunks of skin and the seeds by pouring everything through a colander set over a big bowl or pot. You can press down with the back of a spoon or the potato masher to get more liquid out, but this also pushes some of the pulp through the colander. This will slow down the the next straining step. It's your choice. Next, strain the liquid through a sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth to remove all of the little itty bitty spines. This is one jelly that goes down better without texture!
Now, I know this may seem like sacrilege in light of our efforts to reduce waste and garbage, but I am going to advise that you put the pulp and the cheesecloth in the trash can. Unless you have a compost pile that breaks everything down completely, you don't want to risk running into glochids later on in your gardening. That said, I do hope to eventually have a cactus-specific compost pile if and when I ever get a little bit of land. It can sit and break down for years and then I can use it for mulch somewhere out of the way.
Once you have your prickly pear juice, you have to figure out what you are going to do with it. You can make jelly, always a popular and tasty gift. You can make syrup for use over pancakes or ice cream, or in dressing and drink recipes. Yes, Rob, there is even a recipe for prickly pear mojito. Another drink option, sans alcohol, is the prickly pear agua fresca. I have not tried either one yet. I have had prickly pear lemonade which is brilliant pink, tart, and refreshing.
My Canning Guru and I made jelly. We used a recipe from an old newspaper clipping; the original recipe was from Fruits of the Desert by Sandal English. Here is my modified version.
Prickly Pear Jelly, inspired by Fruits of the Desert
Makes six 8 oz jars & one 4 oz jar of jelly.
3 cups of prickly pear fruit juice
1/2 cup of lemon juice (I used Meyer lemon juice from my freezer stash.)
2 boxes of powdered pectin
5 cups of organic cane sugar
Prep canning equipment and begin sterilizing jars.
Heat prickly pear fruit juice and lemon juice in a large pot.
Sprinkle pectin over juice, whisking it in to dissolve evenly.
Bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Add sugar. Whisk it in to dissolve evenly.
Bring to a rapid boil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Ladle into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2" head space.
Wipe rims thoroughly, cap to finger tightness, and place jars in boiling water bath.
Process in boiling water bath, with lid on, for 10 minutes.
Turn off heat, remove lid, and let jars sit for 5 minutes.
Remove to a towel to sit for 24 hours.
Refrigerate any jars that did not seal.
Prickly Pear Syrup
Makes four 12 oz jars.
Follow the recipe above but omit the pectin.
This syrup is wonderful on pancakes. It's also tasty drizzled over a mixed melon salad, with or without other fruits. It can be added to fruit smoothies for a little sweetness and a whole lot of color. I am also experimenting with it right now to see if it will make a good fruit leather to send to my CSA friends on the Pacific Crest Trail.
100% Local Prickly Pear Fruit Leather - final results are now in!
I have never made fruit leather before, so I don't really know what I'm doing. Other recipes indicated that fruit pulp is more desirable than fruit juice, so I had to come up with some pulpy base for the prickly pear juice and syrup.
Since my friends are really hardcore about local foods, I decided to use a Sharlyn melon from my CSA share rather than store-bought applesauce. I even cranked it by hand in the Vortex blender!
Unfortunately, the Vortex does not puree as thoroughly as an electrically-powered blender, so the result was slightly chunky.
Morning Update: The leather is dry and quite tasty. Very sweet and candy-like, and a bright cheery pink! I vacuum-packed some flat to ship to my friends on the trail.
First, though, I tried vacuum-packing it rolled up. The process smashed the roll flat. I will not ship this to my friends because I don't think they'd appreciate something quite this chewy.
(Note: this leather recipe can be found in the comments section.)
If you are now drooling and desperate to try prickly pear products but don't live anywhere near a desert, you can do a quick Internet search to find a number of companies that sell the syrup or the jelly. If you live in the desert, head on out to your backyard (or to the Dept of Ag office for a permit) and land yourself some tuna!