No matter how many times I cut open a prickly pear fruit (aka tuna) I’m surprised by its color. On the outside they’re a pretty pink, but cut the fruit open and bam! It’s a vibrant magenta you wouldn’t expect to find in nature. Prickly pear syrup is a great way to preserve both the flavor and color of this fruit, and it’s easier to make than you might think.
Of course I don’t eat prickly pear fruit just because it’s pretty. The fruit has a unique and versatile flavor; it’s sweet, mild, sort of a blend of watermelon and apple. Combined with herbs, it makes a great glaze for fish or meat. Or, add water to make a vibrant granita or sorbet. You might even want to use it as a cocktail ingredient. (Come on…you knew I was going to say that.)
Prepping the tunas takes a little work. Even as I type this, several pesky glochids are stuck in my fingers and the palms of my hands. They’re so tiny I can’t see them, but I can feel them! Don’t let this scare you off; prickly pear fruit is worth the work.
If you only have a small amount of fruit, you can juice them in a sauté pan. There’s no need to skin the fruit. Just slice them into quarters, barely cover with water, bring to a boil, mash and strain through a jelly bag. Straining will catch the spines and glochids, and give you a perfectly silky juice.
Since moving to the Desert Southwest, I’ve been harvesting larger quantities of prickly pear fruit, so now I juice them in a steam juicer, a fantastic labor-saving device when you have big batches of fruit to get through. I use it for crabapples and grapes, too.
For those of you who haven’t worked with a steam juicer, it’s a three-part metal tower that holds water in the bottom, fruit in the top, and catches the juice (produced by steaming the fruit) in the middle. You can see photos in this video:
Once you’ve got your juice, measure it, and add an equal amount of sugar. Then whisk, over medium/low heat, to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar is dissolved, taste the syrup. You may want to add some citric acid before the syrup cools.
Why citric acid? Prickly pear fruit is delicious, but it contains no natural acid and the addition of a little tartness improves the flavor of the fruit. If you’ve got a few underripe fruits in your harvest, you may not need the citric acid, but if all your fruit is dead ripe, you’ll improve the flavor with some acidity.
I use citric acid instead of lemon juice because citric acid adds only tartness, no lemon flavor. That way you get the unadulterated tuna taste. I suggest adding 2 teaspoons of citric acid for every three cups of syrup, but start by adding a single teaspoon and increase until the flavor pleases you.
Pour your cooled prickly pear syrup into bottles or jars and pause to admire the color of this beautiful thing you have made. It will thicken slightly as it cools and keeps well in the refrigerator for months.
Now comes the hard part: what to make with this gorgeous liquid? I’m going to ponder that while I sip a prickly pear caipirinha. Don’t know what a caipirinha is? That’s in the video, too!