Sunday, September 9, 2012

RECIPE: Prickly Pear Jelly/Jam/Syrup

     Wow.  I haven't posted here in forever.  I'm going to go ahead and lay the blame squarely at the foot of the twin doors marked "moving" and "graduate school," even though the truth of the matter is that I haven't posted regularly for quite some time even before moving and beginning classes.
     Still, I'm here now, and glad to have a blog dedicated to my culinary adventures and misadventures; the great occasion I'm titling the Prickly Pear Picking and Processing (technically, 'canning') Scheme certainly falls into both of those categories.  Equally.
     So, here's the story:


     I decided last week that the only way for me to become a real Tucsonite was to make some regional delicacy.  I'm not an expert on Sonoran (aka "Southwestern") culture, but some of my fellow graduate students and teachers-of-freshman-English started a conversation about prickly pear jam that piqued my interest.  I did a little googling, picked up some supplies from (the nation's most shady) Wal*Mart, and set out not just on my first prickly pear adventure, but my first adventure in canning--period.  Perhaps I should have done some more research, but I don't learn very well by example.  I have to make my own mistakes, especially in the kitchen.
     The first step toward making prickly pear jam is, of course, the picking.  And let me tell you, it's not as easy as it sounds.  The prickly pear cactus, Opuntia, has a lot of official and unofficial names, but somehow the regional folks have neglected to add 'freakishly painful to pick' to the wikipedia page.  It's one thing to tell prospective pickers that Opuntia fruit (called 'tunas') come armed with both regular spines and little hair-like barbed attachments called glochids, but it's another thing to actually get a couple hundred of these little suckers embedded in your skin.  Oh, and apparently the effects can "easily be confused with scabies or fiberglass dermatitis."  Scabies, people.  I wore gloves and used tongs to pick the tunas, and I still got barbed.  You'd never know, looking at them, how painful they can be to pick--

     But let's be honest here: a painful experience is a memorable experience, and far more interesting to read and write about than, say, an evening stroll on the beach.  Of course, I'm not really a fan of the beach.  Too much sand, and too many people who should wear more clothes.

     I went out on Labor Day, a Monday, so there was little enough traffic.  Oh, and a tip: the best places to find mature prickly pear plants that are unattended, well-hidden-from-the-general-public, and easily accessible happen to be church parking lots.  Brand me for a hypocrite, but I spotted several beautiful plants on a Sunday and decided to go back for them on a Monday.  I happen to think it was a good decision.
     By the time I'd picked a bucketful of tunas, it was still fairly early in the morning.  For those of you who want to replicate the experience, go early in the morning in August--the temperatures are bearable, and you're not competing with bicyclists and their judgmental eyes.  Also, use barbecue tongs to pick the fruit, wear thick rubber gloves, and if you put the ripe tunas in plastic grocery bags, throw them away afterward.  They'll be thick with glochids, as will your clothes, your hair, and every exposed inch of skin.  I'm fairly convinced that glochids can drift on a light breeze here in Tucson.  As you can see in the picture below, even after washing the tunas, they still have little barbed suckers to give away (see my ring finger for proof).  
     I was stupid.  Keep the darn gloves on until after you've blended and strained your loot.

Don't do this.  Wear gloves.  Use tongs.

Do this.  Rinse, using tongs.  Handy.

     After picking and washing your prickly pear, you have to process it into liquid.  I've read of several ways to take care of this phase, and there seems to be three general methods: the freezer method, the boiling method, and the blender method.  If you freeze your tunas for several days and then thaw them out later, they will naturally release their juice as they warm up.  Something about the cold changes the structural composition of the tuna itself and makes this possible.   Boiling takes longer and involves a lot of labor in peeling and chopping that I didn't want to take on, but it seems to segue nicely into the actual jam-making process--if you're doing it all in one day.  I didn't have time to do that, so I chose to go with the third method--the blender method.  Essentially, you blend your tunas in batches and then throw the resulting goupy mess into a cheese-cloth-lined colander to filter out the pulp and seeds.  (The seeds are not poisonous or anything, but they're impossible to chew.)

     I'm not going to lie--this is a messy process, and slow.  I sped things up a bit by folding up the corners of my cheesecloths to make sacks, then twisting (much as you might do with a damp towel, to wring out the water) slowly and persistently until all of the liquid was forced out.  You get a lot of juice by doing it my way--more than you would by either of the other two methods, since every ounce of liquid and flavor is extracted.  The pulp is good for nothing except the birds, so it went straight back to nature.  It's kinda pretty, though, in an inedible way.

     Once I had all of my pulp strained out, I threw my prickly pear juice into a set of rubbermaid containers and refrigerated them overnight.  Supposedly, the juice can go bad fairly quickly (as far as juices go), but I didn't finish my final batch until almost a week after processing the tunas, so there's apparently some leeway.  An advantage to the refrigeration scheme, apart from opening up your schedule a bit, is that any leftover pulp, glochids and all, settles to the bottom.  If you decant off of the top of your storage container, you shouldn't ever have to discover what it feels like to eat tiny barbed hairs.


     The second major part of making prickly pear jam is, somewhat obviously, the part where you get it from being a juice to being a gelled substance in a jar.  For this part of the process, you need a lot of glass jars, a number of large and deep pots, lots of water, sugar, and pectin, and any herbs or spices you want to use to flavor your jam.  Jelly.  Breakfast spread.
     Sterilization is a big deal in canning.  I discovered this, via Google.  Unless you want to refrigerate your entire batch of jam/jelly for six or more months, you must sterilize.  This involves boiling your jars, which takes quite a while to get into full swing (you want a full rolling boil, not just a piddling simmer).  I put my jars on the stove over heat about 10 or 15 minutes before I started the juice, and it seemed to even out pretty well.  The jar lids and rims have to be sterilized, too, but they shouldn't be boiled for a long period or they'll lose their ability to seal.  Thus, boil water separately and pour it over your jars and lids.

     Once you have your jars started, it's time to throw your juice over the stove.  The first batch I made, I used equal parts juice and sugar--five cups each--but it turned out a bit sweet for my taste, so in later batches I reduced my juice-sugar ratio to 5 : 4.  I threw in a fingerful of lavender as my flavoring for my first batch, half a tablespoon of butter to reduce foaming, and about an eighth of a cup of lime juice.  In later batches, I stuck with the lime juice and butter but added rosemary and lemon thyme instead of the lavender, to try something different.  Both flavors couple very nicely with the prickly pear's natural flavor.

     Once the juice comes to a full boil, you're supposed to add the pectin, bring it back to a boil, add the sugar, and bring it back to a boil again.  I mixed up the order of service, adding the sugar first and the pectin second--and it took forever to gel.  I'm talking 20+ minutes here.

     When the chilled-spoon and chilled-plate tests showed that the juice was finally at the gel stage, I removed the juice from the heat, spooned it into my sterilized jars, wiped the jar lids and rims dry and put them on, then submersed the jars into a water bath for 10 minutes.  They sealed fine, and after 24 hours they had set into a thick molasses consistency.  This wasn't thick enough for me, but I'd expected to make a bit of a mess out of my first try, so I wasn't too disappointed.  It's worth mentioning, though, that the process of making any sort of jelly/jam is incredibly messy.  I took over the entire kitchen for three nights in order to get this done, and my housemates are angelic in their forbearance.  (Still, needless to say, I was the one assigned the kitchen on the chore rotation chart for this weekend.  Kind of perfect.)   

     My second batch turned out to be an even more disastrous misadventure.  The first batch was at least edible--and it even turns into a somewhat normal jelly consistency after refrigeration, as I later discovered--but the second batch was terrible.  I must have boiled it for too long, or something (which is odd, given that I boiled it for about a quarter of the time of the first batch, albeit at a higher temperature--as per the instructions on the packet, which I actually read).  Do not wait to jar your prickly pear jam until it is visibly thick on the spoon.  It will, as I discovered, turn into rock-hard candy in the jar.  If it turns to candy in a jar, it has to go in the trash.  Breaking a glass jar to get at your candy, while tempting, is not a good recipe for a happy intestinal system.

     The culprit?  Certo/Sure-Jell pectin.  If given the choice between a liquid and a powdered pectin, always go with the powdered.  It actually performs according to its specifications, and for a newcanner, that's a quality I prize.  So don't go for the liquid--

     --but go for the powdered stuff.  It's cheaper, anyway.  At least, it's cheaper when you consider you're getting 22 reliable 8-ounce jars instead of 12 unreliable ones--8 that didn't gel enough, and 4 that gelled a little too well.

     Anyway--rant = over.  With my new friend, RealFruit Pectin (from Target, where the jars are also better quality than at Wal*Mart--okay, okay, I'll shut up about products now--so long as you remember, POWDER not LIQUID!), I undertook my third and final batch of jelly/jam.  If you want to be a good newcanner, then I suggest you follow the regular order of things--boil your juices (prickly pear and lime) and your flavorings first, then add your pectin and a little salt and bring it back to a boil, then add your sugar and boil for 1-3 minutes.  With the powdered pectin, the sugar is noticeably harder to dissolve--you might have to mash it against the side of your pot a little to break up clumps.  I didn't notice much gelling in the actual pot, but by the time I was halfway through ladling the hot stuff into my sterilized jars, I noticed it was getting thicker.  Even if you don't trust yourself, trust the wisdom of the pectin container's instructions.

     Now, the water bath.  This was the scariest part of the whole canning process for me, since so many steps had to be performed just-so.  The lids, rims, and threads on your jars have to be wiped clean, tightened as much as possible, and then the whole thing immersed in boiling water for a specific amount of time.  You're supposed to be able to cover them with an inch or two of water, but I didn't have any pots deep enough--and deep pots are expensive! (I checked.)  Thus, I only had between a quarter to half an inch of water over the tops of my jars--but the sealing still worked, so I guess I'm okay.  I sat there and watched them boil for ten minutes, with water hissing over the side of the pot (keeping a lid on is also necessary).  Sometimes so much water boiled over that it extinguished the gas stove.  I don't recommend canning unless you have a deeper pot than I did.
     After the ten minutes were up, I pulled my jars out (with the tongs, again) and set them on the counter to cool.  It can take a while--up to 24 hours, supposedly--for the seal to fix itself in place, so it's not worth waiting up to see if it will happen.  I was watching TV with my housemates after I finished canning, and every now and then I'd hear an eerie thunk from the next room--only to realize, with a certain amount of satisfaction, that each thunk was a jar of jelly/jam that I wouldn't have to refrigerate.  (All but one of my jars sealed, and that one failed because I didn't notice that I'd screwed on two lids.  As it turns out, that jar was one of my over-boiled second-batch candy jars, so it went in the trash anyway.)  

     A final note on pectin.  Try and guess which of the jars below was made using powdered, and which with liquid, pectin.  Go on.  I dare you.

Powdered (RealFruit).

Liquid (Certo).

     So there you have it--my story of jamming with prickly pears.  One rather large bucket of prickly pear tunas produced around: 
     - 5 jars of lavender-flavored prickly pear jelly/jam the consistency of molasses from my first batch (which tastes nice but is a little less thick than I'd like);
     - 4 jars of candy from my second batch that I had to trash;
     - 5 jars of syrup that didn't gel properly at all (but will taste quite nice when drizzled over plain yogurt and granola or vanilla ice cream); and
     - 10 jars of rosemary and lemon thyme-flavored jelly/jam from my third batch that turned out exactly as I'd originally wanted.
     That's a lot of jars.

     A side note: there are a lot of other things you can do with prickly pear juice.  There are a lot of benefits to drinking prickly pear, supposedly, unless you're diabetic.  Something about the juice can mess with your insulin, I hear.  
     I made some limeade with my leftovers, and froze a bunch into ice cubes for future use.  At a housewarming party this last weekend, one of my fellow graduate students/teachers showed all of her guests how to make margaritas with the juice, too.  I tried a sip, and it was decent.  I'd be more interested, though, in figuring out how to make prickly-pear-flavored sherbet or ice cream.  Can you imagine the scrumptuousness?


5 cups cactus juice
1/8 cup lemon juice
2 1/2 to 3 Tablespoons powdered pectin (read packet for differing specifications)
1/8 teaspoon salt    
4 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon lavender or freshly-chopped rosemary and lemon thyme

1 comment:

  1. the flesh of the prickly pear slows the rate of which your body absorbs sugar,thereby keeping your glucose levels steady.Instead of sugar rapidly entering your bloodstream and causing insulin to spike,the juice acts a gatekeeper by slowing down the absorption of sugar and naturally lowers your risk of diabetes.
    This wonderful cactus plant
    Fights diabetes
    reduces inflammation
    boosts insulin sensitivity
    normalizes blood sugar
    lowers LDL cholesterol
    Soothes ulcers &colitis
    reduces cancer & tumors
    Relieves hangovers