Saturday, August 7, 2010

The desert is delicious

Yes, that's desert, not dessert.  The desert may appear to be a barren wasteland at first glance, but despite it's intolerable summer heat, it's actually rich in natural food sources.  Not that I'd eat most of them unless I was pretty desperate, but the prickly pear cactus fruit is one exception.

During years where we get a good amount of rain (good means we're no longer measuring annual rainfall in single digits), the cactus fruit is plump and juicy, and this year's harvest was a good one.

I went to my mom's this week to learn the ins and outs of the picking and juicing process.  To start, you must be in the desert.  This is essential.  Locate a fruit-laden prickly pear cactus (not to be mistaken for a barrel or saguaro, which also bear fruit, but of a different kind).  You want to look for fruits that are large and dark red.  Use a pair of tongs to pick them, to avoid the need for bandaids later.

If the fruit is nice and ripe, part of the pear will stay attached to the cactus.

Pick until you have a bucket full.  Or three buckets full.  It just depends on how much juice you want (for every three gallons of fruit, I got one gallon of juice).
Dump the fruit into a sink full of water, to wash off the dust and bugs.

Wear rubber gloves (the kind you wash dishes with) when touching the fruit.  They're not called prickly pears for nothing.  They've got tiny needles that can cling to everything if you're not careful, but the dish gloves will protect your hands as long as you don't grip the fruit too tightly.

Cut each pear in half lengthwise, then in half again.

Dump the quartered fruit into the top section of a steamer.

A steamer is a wonderful contraption, and thankfully, between my mom and my grandmother, we had three going at once.  The fruit (whatever you're getting juice out of) goes into the top pot, which has a sieve-like bottom.  You fill the bottom with water, and as the water boils, the juice is steamed right out of the fruit...

and collects in the middle chamber like magic.

The fruit comes out sad and dessicated, devoid of color and life.  Throw it over the fence for the resident cows to eat.

Pour the juice through a finely woven cloth, to strain out errant slivers.  Notice the gorgeous color.  Store in a sealed container in the freezer until you're ready to make jelly (I personally like to save the jelly-making for cooler weather).

Prickly Pear Jelly:

Wash/sterilize and then heat 5 half-pint jars in a warm oven.  Heat 5 lids in water that is barely simmering.

Mix the following:
2 1/2 cups prickly pear juice
3 Tbsp lemon juice
1 package pectin
1 tsp butter

Bring to a boil.

Stir in 3 1/2 cups sugar.  Bring to a full rolling boil, and boil for three minutes.  Ladle into hot jars.  Wipe rims of jars with a clean damp cloth.

Place hot lids on jars, centering to ensure a good seal.  Screw lid bands on.  Turn jars upside-down onto a towel for five minutes to "process" (no need to mess with a boiling water bath).  Turn right side up and allow to cool and seal (you'll hear the lid pop when the seal is successful).  The jelly will keep in a cool pantry for at least a year.


Frances Wallace said...

I've had it thanks to Lavita and it is yummy, especially if it's on homemade bread or rolls.

Tina said...

Wow! Sounds amazing! I'll have to try it someday. Dan recalls picking prickly pears and eating them as a boy.

Jaime Lynne said...

Super cool post and great pics. You are so cool, Meg!

The Wallace Family said...

Send some our way... we finished our 1st jar long ago. It was delicious!! By the way, we have used the homemade vanilla - it worked perfectly. Thanks again!

Mom said...

Great pictures! The hand modeling in the yellow glove is very attractive! By the way, you left one gallon container in the freezer.

elise said...

another helpful hint i recently learned when canning... if you throw the jars/lids in the dishwasher they're steaming and sanitized so you don't have to mess with another huge pot of boiling water :)

See Mack Snow said...

That was fascinating. I wish I knew what prickly pear jelly tasted like.

Rachel Mai said...

This is amazing!!!

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