I love tequila. Whether it is served in a margarita or straight up in a shot with lime, it is guaranteed to warm your soul. While I thoroughly enjoy a traditional, salt on the rim, lime margarita, sometimes it is nice to add a little something special. Enter: prickly pear simple syrup! You may be wondering, “What the fuck is a prickly pear”? Or you may be thinking, “Pssh, old news”! Either way, this stuff is hella good.
I had only tasted a prickly pear margarita at restaurants before but never really knew (or cared) what a prickly pear even was. However, one day I was with some friends fishing when we stumbled upon these cacti. They had gorgeous magenta bulbs sprouting from them. One of my friends mentioned that the bulbs were called prickly pears and they were edible. Okay, so these are what I was drinking. I picked a bunch of them and decided to do some research.
I learned that the cacti are called Opuntias found in Mexico, the Southwestern United States and many other regions. In Florida, where I am from, they can be found in the pine forests and coastal areas. Prickly pear season in Florida is typically August – September. However, they are extremely adaptable and we found them in winter.
The entire cactus can be eaten if prepared correctly but the prickly pear fruit (or tuna…seriously it is called tuna) is the most commonly eaten. There are many varieties of prickly pear fruit but they all have tiny fuzzy thorns on the outside flesh called glochids and tough seeds on the inside.
Anyway, after I got home with my bucket of prickly pears, I researched how to prepare them to make a simple syrup. I read many articles where it said the easiest way to prepare the pears was to soak them in water and throw them whole into a blender. Then strain that mixture into a bowl using a sieve and proceed to cooking the syrup. However, my blender doesn’t work as good as she used to. So, I decided to prepare them the other way I read about.
The number one thing to remember is to wear gloves. Seriously, just do it. It makes it easier to pick and handle the pears. The tiny hair like thorns easily get stuck in your fingers and are annoying as hell. They don’t hurt necessarily, but they are irritating. If you get store-bought pears, then you could bare-hand them if you want, but I would still wear gloves to be on the safe side.
With your gloves on, wash the pears under running water. This will help rinse some of the thorns and dirt away. Next, take a sharp knife and cut the ends off each pear.
Then, make a shallow cut length wise across the outer skin of the pear until you hit the inside fruit. This will make it easier to peel the fleshy inside fruit from the thorny outer skin.
Next, with the knife, hold down the outer skin and with your thumb, gently push the flesh away from the outer skin in an unraveling motion. Most of the fruit rolled right off the outer peel in one piece, but other times it required some scooping with a spoon. It is all going into a pot in the end, so do not worry about doing this perfectly.
Once the insides of the pears are removed from their outer layers, toss them into a bowl. Keep in mind that this process is messy. The pears are succulent so the bright magenta sticky juice gets everywhere. Wear an apron or clothes you do not care about when prepping these.
The dangerous part is over with. Hallelujah. Now it is time to start cooking the simple syrup!
Recipe: Prickly Pear Simple Syrup
10-15 prickly pears
1 cup or more of sugar
1 cup of water
Pour the bowl of prickly pear guts into a large pan. Add the water, sugar and citrus of your choice. The citrus helps add some tartness. I only needed about 1 cup of water since the prickly pears I used were so ripe and juicy. I did not want the syrup to get too watery. Feel free to play around with the sugar and water amounts to get your desired consistency.
Bring to a boil. Once the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat to low and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Then, turn off the heat and let it cool for 15-20 minutes.
Here is where this task gets a little messier. Once the mixture has cooled down all the way, place a sieve into a large bowl and pour the mixture in. You can also use a thin wash cloth or some paper towels layered together. Press down on the fruit pulp with a spoon to get as much juice into the bowl as possible. This process will catch any remaining thorns and seeds. I recommend straining the mixture a second or even a third time.
Last, ladle the finished product into a jar or airtight container and keep refrigerated. Finally, the tedious and prickly journey is complete! The taste of a raw prickly pear is watermelon-like but a little milder in flavor. So, with the help of the sweetness from the sugar and the tartness of the citrus, you have one delicious simple syrup! Use a tablespoon or so in your next tequila cocktail to add a beautiful pink hue and a delicious fruity note.