Early fall brings the ripening of brilliant garnet prickly pears (tunas), festooned along the top rims of the Southwest’s ubiquitous prickly pear cacti like so many fiery Christmas lights. Alas, it’s not the big spiky thorns protruding from the nopales (the big green paddle-shaped leaves) that’ll gitcha, it’s the tiny hairlike glochids (the near-invisible barbed bristles) on the tunas themselves, that seem to leap from the fruits to imbed themselves in your flesh with maddening tenacity.
You’ll hear muy macho tips for harvesting tunas: Wear heavy gloves, use barbecue tongs, wield a machete, even haul around a propane tank and use a “Pear Burner” torch to burn off the glochids. But the Cowgirl Way is the simplest, and to my mind, the best way … and with nary a worrisome glochid or even a chipped fingernail!
Just grab a plastic water bottle (save that cap!) and your trusty pocketknife, and cut the bottle in two about halfway up. Use the top half, with the cap on, and place it over a ripe tuna, squeeze gently, and twist to pluck. Seek the ones that “glow” with a shiny surface and release from the plant easily. Leave the ones that are bright red—but still slightly opaque and firmly attached—to ripen for the birds and wildlife. I like to use plastic milk crates for gathering tunas, as I can hose them off and dry them outdoors—without even handling them—before taking them into the house for processing.
Savvy cowgirls won’t pass up the grocery or farmer’s market tunas, either: In season, they’re 4-to-6 for a dollar in the Mexican groceries and farmers’ markets, and will most likely be Opuntia ficus-indica—a domesticated, spineless variety—that makes prep a cinch.
Prickly Pear Syrup
This fuchsia-hued syrup makes a wonderful glaze for roasted duck and other wild game as well as a lovely artisanal syrup for special-occasion cheesecakes, pound cakes, or waffles (that is, if you don’t use it all up in my Cowgirl Prickly Pear Margaritas and the luscious Prickly Pear Ice Cream with Roasted Piñons here).
Yields 3 to 4 (1/2-pint) jars
24 red, ripe prickly pear tunas
4 cups organic cane sugar
1 tablespoon citric acid (available at most supermarkets)
Process the prickly pear tunas into juice: No need to peel the tunas: A tightly woven jelly bag or flour cloth will strain out the glochids along with the skins and seeds. Wearing rubber gloves, scrub the tunas with a vegetable brush in cold water, then cut them into quarters and add to a deep pot. Add about 1 cup water and simmer the tunas for 45 minutes, or until completely soft; you will be surprised at how much juice they release—prickly pear tunas are 85 to 90 percent water.
Strain through a tightly woven jelly bag or two thicknesses of flour cloth; let drip for 2 to 3 hours. You can press gently on the pulp with a wooden spoon, but not too much; you want the flavors of the flesh, not the skin. Strain a second time through a clean jelly bag or two thicknesses of flour cloth for the clearest possible juice.
Measure 4 cups strained prickly pear juice into a large pot over high heat, add the sugar, bring to a boil, and continue to boil for 25 minutes. Remove the prickly pear pot from the heat and stir in the citric acid.
Prickly Pear Ice Cream
with Roasted Piñons
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup organic cane sugar
1 cup prickly pear syrup
2 tablespoons Paula’s Texas Orange (or other top-quality orange liqueur)
1/2 orange, zested and juiced
1/2 cup piñons, for topping
Make a classic custard: Combine the milk and cream in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Scrape the inside of the vanilla bean with the dull side of a knife, then add the scrapings and the bean itself to the saucepan. Heat to scalding, then remove the pan from the heat, remove the vanilla bean, and let the liquid cool. (Cook’s Note: Don’t break your custard! Use a candy thermometer; 170° F is perfect; over 175° F and it will curdle and you’ll need to start over.)
Beat the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a flat beater on high speed. Add the sugar gradually, beating until the mixture is fluffy and lemon-colored. When the milk mixture has cooled enough to comfortably touch with your finger for 10 seconds, ladle out a cup of it into the egg mixture, with the mixer running on low speed. Return the saucepan of remaining milk back to the stovetop on medium-high heat and slowly pour in the now-tempered egg mixture, stirring continuously.
When a candy thermometer placed in the pan reads 170° F, the custard is done. Pour the custard into a nonreactive bowl or container, stir in the prickly pear syrup, orange liqueur, juice and zest, and smoothly lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface and up the sides of the bowl so the custard does not develop a skin. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight.
Toast the piñons in a dry cast-iron skillet over high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until they become fragrant and toasty-gold colored; let cool on a paper towel.
Process the ice cream in a 2-quart ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Serve with toasted piñons and a drizzle of prickly pear syrup.
Cowgirl Prickly Pear Margaritas
2 tablespoons agave nectar
2 tablespoons coarse Hawaiian black lava salt
3/4 cup 100-percent organic agave tequila, such as Dulce Vida
1/3 cup Prickly Pear Syrup (see recipe above)
1/4 cup fresh Key lime juice, strained
2 tablespoons Paula’s Texas Orange (or other orange liqueur)
Pour the agave nectar into a saucer, and rim 4 rocks glasses with black salt by dipping each in the agave nectar, then into a second saucer containing the salt. Combine the tequila, prickly pear syrup, lime juice, and orange liqueur in a cocktail shaker, or a jar with a tight-fitting lid, add 1 cup of ice, and shake vigorously.
Fill the glasses with ice, strain in the margaritas, and enjoy!
Photos recipe and styling by Susan L. Ebert