Prickly pear primer

In Season

January 17, 2007|By Carol Mighton Haddix | Carol Mighton Haddix,Chicago Tribune

Did you know that the prickly pear, a large, egg-shaped fruit, is really a berry? Once you cut into the fruit, you'll note the small seeds similar to those in many types of berries, says Elizabeth Schneider in Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide.

The fruit is found on cactuses that grow in Mexico, the southwestern United States and elsewhere. It goes by other names, including cactus pear, Barbary fig and "tuna" in Spanish. It looks like a cactus because of its sharp needles poking out of the skin.

Its most surprising feature is its vivid red flesh, which makes a great visual addition to fruit bowls. The exterior turns from green to red when ripe. Another type of prickly pear now available from Chile is always green, with a green-gold flesh. The flavor of each is reminiscent of a flowery melon.

Carol Mighton Haddix writes for the Chicago Tribune.

TIPS

BUYING

Whether red or green, prickly pears are ripe when they give slightly when squeezed. Avoid very soft or wrinkled fruit. The pears are more available in supermarkets these days, with the popularity of Mexican and Southwest cuisines. You'll also find them in Mexican markets.

STORING

If the pear is still firm, leave it at room temperature for a few days to soften. Then refrigerate in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for up to a week, says writer Elizabeth Schneider.

COOKING

Take care when cutting up the fruit. Though most come with the needles removed, some still might remain. Schneider's method for removing the skin is to spear the fruit with a fork, cut off each end, then cut the skin from end to end and peel it back from the flesh.

If the seeds are soft, the fruit can be sliced to serve in a fruit bowl or eaten out of hand. If the seeds are hard, use the fruit in sauces or drinks after pureeing in a blender and straining out the seeds.

Here's an easy sauce from Melissa's Great Book of Produce: Cook 2 cups of prickly pear puree with 1 / 3 cup sugar (or more to taste), and 1 tablespoon lime juice. Simmer until thickened. Stir in 1 more cup of fresh puree at the end.

RICK BAYLESS' CRIMSON PRICKLY PEAR SAUCE / / MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS OR 32 SERVINGS

This is one of my favorite sauces. Its deep, purply, cranberry color is reason enough for that designation, but then again so is the bright strawberry / kiwi / watermelon flavor, with its hints of the unbridled tropics.

The puree is very watery, like watermelon juice, so in order to give the sauce some body but not take away all the fruit's freshness, I've directed you to rapidly boil down part of the puree with sugar, then cool it and add the remaining uncooked puree.

This method works well with watermelon puree, too, should you not be able to find prickly pears. You will need about 3 cups seeded, pureed watermelon pulp.

Use the sauce as a topping for pears or other fruit or ice cream.

2-1 / 2 pounds (about 16) fresh prickly pears

1 / 3 cup sugar, plus a little more if needed

about 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, if needed

about 1 tablespoon orange liqueur

Cut a 1 / 2 -inch slice off both ends of the prickly pears, then make a 1 / 2 -inch-deep incision down the side of each one. Carefully peel off the rind, starting from your incision.

Roughly chop the peeled prickly pears, puree in a food processor or blender, then press through a fine strainer into a bowl. There should be about 3 cups.

In a medium-size (2- to 3-quart) saucepan, combine 2 cups of the puree with 1 / 3 cup sugar and simmer rapidly over medium to medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until reduced to 1 cup. Cool.

Combine the cooked mixture with the remaining 1 cup of uncooked puree in a small bowl. Taste and season with lime juice, orange liqueur and additional sugar if needed.

Advance preparation: Covered and refrigerated, the sauce will keep about a week. The finished sauce (as well as the prickly pear pulp) also can be frozen.

From "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen," by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless and JeanMarie Brownson (Scribner, 1996)

Per serving: 19 calories, 0 grams protein, 0 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium

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