Food can be found in places we don’t expect. The arroyo that runs by my house in a suburb of Albuquerque offers up plump prickly pear tunas every fall, urging me to get out the tongs. It takes time and patience to harvest and process these magenta marvels, but the delicate flavor is well worth the effort.
Our DOT Garden Team has been harvesting and making prickly pear juice for several years. Below are some of our tips and hints for a glochid-free, wonderful experience! ~Karen Bentrup
Scouting for Prickly Pears
- Wild-crafting can be really fun and wonderful but these fruits are generally smaller in size.
- Residential, no-spray cactus are terrific since they usually have received some irrigation, are larger, and generally more accessible.
- Many home-owners are willing to share. Ask permission first and then say thank you with a jar of their fruit’s jelly!
- A ripe tuna is full magenta, no green on the fruit at the stem end.
- Definitely use metal tongs for removing fruit. Clasp the fruit the long way and then gently twist. Pops right off. Sometimes you need to tug a bit even if ripe.
- Drop into large sturdy buckets. No bags.
- Wear gloves, long sleeved shirt, long pants, closed toe shoes, and for the really safety conscious – sunglasses.
- Watch where you are standing, leaning and reaching – there are many spines on cactuses.
- Glochids – these are tiny hair-like short spines clumped together in what look like little round patches all over the fruit. WOW – these hurt.
- There are many ways to process the fruit – burning off glochids, scrubbing with heavy duty brushes, rubbing with thick leather, putting whole fruit into Vitamix!! – all can work. It all depends on what you are doing and where.
- Our processing tips are for the home or school processing site for juicing.
- After harvesting, put prickly pears in a big shallow pan or tub and scrub with long handled scrub brushes. Dump onto rinse area and rinse with water. This helps to reduce glochids. Removes bird poop and mouse droppings too!
- Cutting – we used large low-sided trays, held fruit with tongs or metal forks and cut and scooped this way. We liked it better than wearing one heavy duty leather glove.
- For best jelly – taste and appearance – use only the insides of the fruits. NOT the skins. Cut large fruit down the long axis, using an ice cream scoop, scoop out the pulp and seeds. Put in big pot. Add tiny splash of water to make sure there is liquid in bottom of pot. Bring to quiet boil, simmer and process for 10-15mins max.
- For juicing – use whole fruits just cut in half and/or the skins left from scooping out the insides. Add enough water to not quite cover the fruit.
- Strain thru fine mesh strainer. It’s worth $20-30 for a really good double layer, fine mesh strainer. You can also strain thru an old t-shirt and then its tie-dyed! Or use cheese cloth.
Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe
- We did double batches and it worked fine.
- We did an experiment with Pomona Pectin which relies on a different set of chemical reactions and used Agave. Make sure this powder is completely 100% dissolved before adding to juice or it will be very lumpy.
4 cups prickly pear juice (requires around four pounds of fruit)
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 package low sugar pectin
- Pour four cups of the prickly pear juice into a pot and add a half cup of lemon juice.
- If juice has been refrigerated, bring it up to warm temp BEFORE adding the next dry ingredients.
- Mix a quarter cup of the sugar and a box of low/no sugar pectin and add to the juice. Sprinkle in slowly while friend stirs.
- Bring the mixture to a full boil (a rolling boil).
- Add the remaining sugar slowly and bring back to a full boil.
- Boil for one minute, stirring constantly. May need to reduce temp a bit or move off and on the burner so it doesn’t boil over.
- For the next 2 steps, work rapidly so the mixture does not cool and thicken while you are ladling into jars.
- At end of 1 minute, take off the heat. Using a flat large spoon and skim off the foam.
- Glass jars should be tempered in really hot water. The sink works well and you can add boiling water periodically to keep them really hot. Put your ladle or metal measuring cup in this hot bath so it’s hot too when you start ladling jelly.
- Pour into jars.
- Wipe to remove excess jelly.
- Set on cooling racks.
- If applying lids and rings, finger tighten at this point.
Then you can either let the jars cool and refrigerate OR following your favorite canning recipe.
More about the prickly pear
PRICKLY PEAR NOMENCLATURE
Family: Cactaceae (Cactus family)
Latin name: Opuntia spp.
Tohono O’odham Name: I:ibhai
There are 12 varieties of fruiting Opuntia cactus. Opuntia engelmannii (Englemann’s Prickly Pear) is native to the Sonoran Desert, and likely can found very near your house. Opuntia ficus indica is a larger, cultivated prickly pear that is often thornless and therefore easily harvested. Englemann’s Prickly Pear has pinkish flower buds that open to yellow flowers. The immature fruit is green and matures to red, pink, or magenta. Pads are paddle-shaped and slightly larger than an adult’s outspread hand. Mature pads are green with medium to long spines.
Thanks to Tom, Alia and Barbara MacFarlane for allowing us to harvest their fruit!
For More Recipes see: Edible Prickly Pear–Recipes for Juice
For More Info: Desert Harvesters