One of my favorite things to make for Christmas gifts for many years was Prickly Pear Jelly. Devin asked me last year to make some, and Alvina mentioned it last week, so it is in my mind to make some this year. This article will be done in several parts, to cover the process from start to finish: from collecting the ripe prickly pears to beautiful jars of jelly.
The first part is finding the pears (or "tuna" as they are called in Spanish). I usually keep my eyes open throughout the year for sizeable prickly pear patches along county roads or waste places that might be ok to gather in. You can also ask friends with acreage if they have prickly pear cactus on their land, and if they would let you gather some.
We can't pick anything in State Parks or along state highways, but there's no need, really, because in the southwest, even up into Oklahoma, cactus is pretty common.
Once you have located a likely patch, keep your eyes open. Starting in late August or early September, the pears will begin ripening. You know they are ripe when they turn reddish purple. They ripen over time, with different plants turning red at different times Even in the same patch, some fruits will be ripe while others are still green. They will last a long time on the plant if they are not eaten by animals, so you have a little leeway, usually, to gather them.
CAUTION: THEY HAVE THORNS AND HORRIBLE LITTLE HAIR-LIKE SPINES on them, even on the pears!!!! I use a set of tongs to pull them so that I do not have to touch them at all - those little hair spines can get into gloves and are bad news!
I just grasp each ripe pear firmly with the tongs and twist and pull. They come right off. The riper the pear, the easier it will come loose. If your tongs are not strong, you can use them to hold the pear and a long knife to cut them at the base. Either way works fine. Just stay on strong footing and don't even think about trying to get pears from the middle of the patch. Leave those, and only collect the ones you can reach without reaching!!!
Drop them into a heavy paper sack (paper so the spines won't come thru and so you can throw it away when done. Do not reuse the bag as it will have invisible spines in it.
They will keep like this for several days until you are ready to use them. No need to refrigerate at this point.
Tomorrow's post will tell how to prepare them for eating and how to make juice for the jelly. The third post tells how to make the jelly itself.