Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fruits of the Desert

As I mentioned in my last post, we've had relatives visiting. Early one morning Joe and I took the kids to a nearby wash (just across the road and down a little slope) to pick prickly pears. This is the perfect time, with most fruits at the ideal stage of deep, blood-red ripeness. Using tongs to avoid getting stabbed, we half-filled each of two paper grocery bags. That was enough to make about 3 dozen 8-ounce jars of jelly.
      When we got back to the kitchen, the first thing to do was wash the prickly pears well. We ran them through 3 changes of water, as they collect a lot of dust out there in the desert. They can also have a sort of waxy coating that may not all come off, even with the most vigorous rinsing, but it's nothing to worry about.
Next, I like to cut them in half so the juices will release more quickly. Hold them with tongs while you do this, to protect your fingers; those little stickers are annoying.

Here's what they look like cut and ready for the kettle. You can carefully scoop out the delicious fresh pulp from the center to eat, but it's pretty seedy, so there's a lot to spit out.

 Add a little water - just a cup or two for a large kettle like this one - to get them started cooking down (some recipes say water to cover, but the fruits are really quite juicy and I don't want to dilute the flavor any more than necessary), bring to a boil, and let simmer till the fruits are very soft and have released much of their juice.
 Using a big slotted spoon, lift the cooked fruits into a colander set over a large bowl and mash the heck out of them to get out as much juice as possible.
Then strain what's in the bowl through a finer mesh strainer - look at all those little black seeds! You don't want them in your jelly.
 So here's what you'll have at this stage. I did say blood-red, remember?
In the picture below, the jelly on the left was made from less-ripe fruit. It tastes good but doesn't have quite the richness of flavor of the spoonful on the right, made from perfectly ripe fruit.
I strain the juice one more time through a few layers of cheesecloth to get the clearest possible juice before beginning the actual jelly-making.
Here's the recipe I've used for years, from the Pima County Agricultural Extension office. The ingredients, as with most jams and jellies, are quite simple. The jar with the green lid is a new variety of pectin (at least new to me) from the Ball company, which works quite well. You just measure out the amount you need for the recipe; 6 Tablespoons are equal to one box of regular powdered pectin. Unfortunately, this jar didn't contain multiples of 6 T., but rather 16 T., enough for 2 2/3 batches of jelly. I wasn't happy about that and so I hunted down old-fashioned boxes of Sure-Jell for subsequent batches.

IMPORTANT: Do not double this recipe; it won't set up properly.

Prickly Pear Jelly - makes about 5 cups
2 1/2 cups prickly pear juice
1 package powdered pectin (they say it sets more successfully than liquid)
3 1/2 cups sugar
3 Tablespoons lemon or lime juice

Combine pectin and juice in a medium saucepan. I like to whisk them together to ensure the pectin dissolves quickly and evenly.
Stirring constantly, bring to a fast boil and add the lemon or lime juice and sugar.  Bring to a hard boil and boil for exactly 3 minutes. Timing is important for getting a good jell. Remove from heat; stir and skim off any foam (I always collect that in a little cup; my grandma used to let me have the foam skimmings from her jelly-making on bread and butter). Pour at once into sterilized jelly jars and wipe the edges of the jars with a clean, damp cloth. Seal immediately with 2-part metal lids, screwing the metal bands on firmly. Let cool on a rack and store in a cool, dry place.

Note: you can process the jars in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes if you wish.
 If for some reason the jelly doesn't all set up, don't worry. You'll have a few jars of Prickly Pear Syrup, which is a lovely ingredient to have on hand, to use on pancakes, French toast, or over ice cream. I usually put up a few jars of syrup on purpose, leaving out the pectin and using equal parts sugar and juice. It's great in Prickly Pear Margaritas, which I make by throwing everything in the blender with about a cup of ice per person (or you can mix all the liquid ingredients and serve on the rocks). Here's what you need to serve 4:

Prickly Pear Margaritas
6 ounces good quality gold tequila
4 ounces triple sec
4 ounces lime juice
2 ounces prickly pear syrup
1 ounce orange juice

If you're in a place where you have access to these fruits of the desert, please consider taking advantage of them. If you don't have time to make jelly right away (and this applies to any fruit, not just prickly pears), you can freeze the juice to use later, when you do have time. Plastic water bottles work well for that; just remember not to overfill them as liquids expand when they freeze.

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