Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Don't forget nature's bounty

A few years ago a prickly pear cactus appeared in my yard.  Because javalina, quail, doves and other critters hang out around here, we get lots of free plants --most likely from seeds in poop.  We also have high winds, so some blows in. The cactus has grown up. Last year it put on a few pears.  This year it is loaded, so I started looking into what to do with them.

First is timing.  Got to wait until they turn sweet, but get them before all the other critters do.  So, once a week since they turned dark red,  I've pulled, roasted and tasted one or two (more on that later).  Finally they are starting to taste like something good.  The flavor is like blend of watermelon and carrot juice. The fruit is mostly hard seeds, so extracting the juice for jelly, to ferment or just to drink seems to be the custom. What follows is the small batch method I've used to extract juice.  Each pear is good for only one to two ounces of juice, so secondary recovery from seed pulp and skin is worth the effort.

The pears are covered with spines and tiny stickers (glochids), so don't handle these with bare hands. Tongs and/or gloves are needed. The glochids are in the white spots and around the base and blossom scar. Select pears that come off the plant easily with a slight twist of the tongs.

Collect in a dish or bucket.  The next step is to burn off the glochids. This really isn't optional if you want juice or jelly.  No one wants a mouth full of these spines. So, using the tongs, you burn them off. Easy sources of fire include gas stove or grill burners. A butane or propane torch or unscented candle, preferably beeswax, will also work. You should be left with black ash spots where the white spines were. After burning the glochids off, place the just roasted pear in a clean dish, NOT back in with the unprocessed ones or you'll get more glochids on the roasted pears.

From here' you are ready to extract the juice. Some people put the whole pears in the blender. I don't, but am not sure my method is any better. Next step, I slice length wise and load skin-side up in a fine sieve to 'mash.'  Mash with a sturdy metal spoon, then scrape the pulp from the skin and mash some more. The sieve is over a Pyrex measuring cup.  I try to minimize contact with metal to preserve the delicate flavor. Put the skins in a glass dish to weep.

Once most of the juice is out of the seeds and pulp, I move the pulp to a smaller sieve and Pyrex set-up and allow it to gravity drip. This will produce more juice as the ruptured seed membranes slowly give up their juice.

 The final product is a deep pink juice with some fine pulp. From here you can make jelly if you wish, or just chill and drink. (This is why you don't want it full of stickery things!)
There are lots of other wild plants that can be harvested and preserved to add to your pantry or everyday use.  Do research or consult local experts to ensure you aren't chosing a poisonous look-alike for your intended harvest. Also, please be responsible and leave half or more of what you find for the wild animals who depend on the food source. I do this, even in my yard.

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