My amazing friend Helen mailed me a care package recently that included her prickly pear simple syrup. I’ve already created a margarita recipe that relies on the syrup – blog post soon – but first I need to walk you through how to make the syrup, just in case you’re crazy enough to try doing this yourself.
Harvesting prickly pears can be quite an adventure. You’ll need a source for prickly pears. The season for prickly pears in New Mexico (where crazy Helen lives) is September through November. I’m assuming that there is a similar season in California, Nevada and Arizona. You want the red pears that grow where the flower was last Spring. Helen suggests sourcing cactus pears in vacant lots, neighbors’ yards (preferred), and while hiking in the desert. We saw a huge cactus covered in them on a trail in the hills of Santa Barbara just a few weeks ago. Find your local bodega and ask for cactus “tunas” if all else fails. You will need about 3-4 pounds of red prickly pears. Do not wear sandals to pick prickly pears. Wear long sleeves, boots, blue jeans and leather gloves.
Note that prickly pears – or “tunas” as they are known to many Latinos – come in different varieties. Some are deep red, others may be a rose color or light pink. Helen uses a blend depending on what she was able to forage. The cactus outside her bedroom window in Albuquerque is called “Claret Cup” and has tiny pears that are dark red, almost black, in color. The pears shown in the photo are much larger, and were picked from the cactus at the San Felipe de Neri church in Old Town Albuquerque.
Next, you’ll need:
- Metal tongs, the longer the handles the better
- A double strength paper bag
- A very large colander
- A garden hose hooked up to water source
Pick the pears off the cactus paddles using the tongs. The pears should separate from the cactus paddles with a gentle twist and tug action. You may leave some of the internal flower behind. It won’t hurt the cactus, don’t worry. Put them in the paper bag and carry them home. DO NOT TAKE THEM INSIDE!!!! If you do you’ll end up with a kitchen full of irritating little thread thorns! In your backyard pour the contents of the paper bag into the large colander and hose off the pears for 3 minutes. Burn the paper bag.
Now, at this point some people use a torch or fire to burn the thorn threads off the pears. Helen says not to bother with that step. She just takes the washed pears into the kitchen and – still using the tongs to hold the pears on a cutting board – she uses a long, very sharp knife to slice each pear into four segments.
Place all of the segments – seeds, flesh, skin, and stickers all together – in a very large pot. Pour in enough fresh water to cover the segments in the pot. Bring to a good boil on high heat, and then turn down the heat to simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes. You will smell the pears as they release a fruity, almost tropical, scent, and the water will turn a beautiful magenta.
While the pears are simmering, line another colander with 2-3 thicknesses of kitchen cheesecloth and set the colander over a very large ceramic bowl.
When you have finished simmering the segments, pour the entire mixture through the cheesecloth into the bowl and let it drip overnight into the bowl. If you press on the pears to get more juice through the cheesecloth, you will get more juice, but the juice may be a bit cloudy. Life is full of tradeoffs.
When you get up the next morning, voila, you’ll have several cups of prickly pear juice! Discard (or better yet, compost!) the mess in the cheesecloth. Helen is a thrifty soul, so she rinses and re-uses the cheesecloth.
To turn your juice into simple syrup you’ll need to measure the juice and add 1 part juice to one part sugar. Bring the juice and sugar to a boil. You can then cool the syrup and use it immediately, or if you want to store it indefinitely pour the syrup into sterilized jars, seal with sterilized lids, and put through a boiling water bath canner for 5 minutes. Give to friends and invite creativity!