So what’s scarier?
This? Or this? The above is an Opuntia ficus-indica (well, probably, as I am no botanist), commonly known as the “prickly-pear cactus,” and the structure she has commandeered is a six-foot fence. But it’s really hard to appreciate the massive size of our Opuntia without standing right next to her, inches away from the spines. And man, are there spines. Two types, actually; the large fixed ones like canine teeth that appear on the broad, flat green plates (“nopales”) . . .
. . . and then the tiny, delicate, nearly invisible “glochids” that are most evident on the fruits (“tunas”). “Evident” being a relative term, as the ones that get under your skin and make you crazy really aren’t detectable by sight at all.
Opuntias make you wonder about the Wisdom of Nature and all that. For a plant, isn’t the whole point of producing a fruit involve convincing some ambulatory creature to eat it and deposit the (prefertilized) seed somewhere else? Wasn’t I taught that in middle school? How on earth can this be achieved when the fruit is more insanely hostile than North Korea? This plant is better-armed than the soldiers in “Aliens.” Even our neighborhood squadron of highly-trained squirrels — rodents who have successfully broken into our garage to get at a rumor of birdseed as well as perfecting the launching physics of fig-cannonballs at our dogs — even they avoid even going near the Opuntia.
Enter me, of course.
Confronting the Opuntia involves extremely basic technology. A chair, a stick, some tongs and really long, really thick rubber gloves. Alright, the rubber gloves aren’t really “basic” but you get what I’m saying. When the fruits are ripe, they will be a gloriously brilliant red, plump and tempting and eager to send you to the emergency room with the spines, where you will be mocked mercilessly by junior doctors practicing their tweezer skills at $1,000 an hour. But that doesn’t have to happen. Use the stick to knock down the high fruits, the tongs to twist off the lowers, and eventually you weave through the squirrel-fig cannonade with what you were after.
Now here’s where the rubber hits the road, and I’m not kidding about the rubber. You need gloves. Big thick ones. On the Web there are many reports of people singeing off the spines and glochids by holding them over an open flame. That’s all very Paleo and very hip. But as a matter of principle (I like my house not being a smoking hole in the ground) and painful experience (I like my skin being intact) I avoid open flames unless I absolutely have to use them, so I’ve adopted a much simpler technique: rubber gloves, a green scrubby sponge, and the sink.
Once the scrubbing is done and the sponge thrown away (do NOT mess that part up), you end up with these guys: The juice is deeply red and will stain anything within thirty feet, so be aware. Cut the fruits into quarters and then throw them into the biggest stewpot you have. About twelve fruits will make a nice batch of syrup or jelly.
On the lowest setting on the stove, let the fruits think about things for a while. You don’t have to add water. In time the fruits will start to release liquid. It’s kind of a sauna for them. That’s when you finally get your revenge and bring out the Masher.
Once you’ve got some liquid in the pot, bring out a potato masher and go to town. You’re going to be doing this for a while, so make sure you don’t try this when you’re on the hook for meetings, first dates, or your caesarian appointment. Mash the fruits and then let them sit a bit more on the lowest heat possible. Do it again. Do it again.
Enjoy every bit of it.
Eventually, you’ll end up with a pot full of skins and simmering mash. Turn everything off, let it cool a bit, and then sieve out the skins and seeds. Any fine strainer will do, but once I bought a big Chinoise strainer I’ve never looked back.
Now, you simmer.
You’ve got a pot full of prickly pear juice. If you have about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of juice, which is about what twelve fruits will get you, you’re ready to go. If you have more than that, bring it up to a simmer and let it reduce a bit. Then add:
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 5 cups sugar
“Five CUPS?” I hear you cry. “Five CUPS”? Yup. No joke. You’re not going to get a decent syrup or have the base for a jelly without that amount of sugar. There are recipes and entire websites dedicated to faking food with “healthy” chemical this and thats, or the latest herbal miracle sweetener that will also burn fat and do your dishes and walk your dog and make your husband love you, but this isn’t one of them. Now boil it. HARD. For about two minutes. You should see it becoming viscous and agreeable, like honey or maple syrup. Check with a spoon; it should sheet off instead of drip. Then you’re done. You’ve made prickly pear syrup. Let it cool, package it up, put it in the fridge. Break it out to add to lemonade, margaritas, mojitos and fizzy water. Tomorrow, I’ll post how to use it to make a ferocious hot sauce and a sweet, complex and frisky barbecue sauce. I think these things are why the Hive Queen/Opuntia puts up with me at all.