Miel de Tuna – Prickly Pear Syrup

There are so many methods to working with tuna, prickly pear, the fruit of the nopal cactus. This is just one of them, and the one which works best for me, as I generally do my kitchen work without an extra set of hands.

There’s a few important things to remember when working with tuna. These bright red fruit are covered in tiny nearly invisible spines. Do not grab barehanded. When harvesting the fruit, grab with kitchen tongs and gently twist to remove from the plant. And I repeat, do not grab barehanded. If the inevitable tiny spine does make its way into the skin, gently rub against a dry paintbrush, end of a ponytail, or any such hairy mass to remove. It’s weird, but it works.

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Necessary tuna picking equipment: 5 gallon bucket, kitchen tongs and blinding Arizona sun.

Nopal, prickly pear, have a wide ranging habitat and I’ve seen them tolerating even the harsh wintery conditions of southeast Michigan. Both ‘thornless’ (do not believe this lie) and thorned varieties produce fruit. The plant requires little to thrive, except for dry and sunny conditions and a calcium based fertilizer during the growing season. Fruit should be picked before heavy summer rains, as the excess water will give the fruit a fermented taste.

Unfortunately, the fruits available at markets are not worth purchasing as it does not ripen well once picked.

A note on the yield, time and taste of this recipe: It is not much yield and it is much time required, though little active effort. Out of approximately 3 gallons of collected fruit, the resulting syrup was not much more than 1 1/4 cup. The best way I can describe the flavor of this syrup is as being close to that of Jägermeister. Sweet, pleasantly medicinal and with a slight mineral finish. My most simple way of using this syrup is in coffee, but wouldn’t be out of place drizzled over ice cream, or incorporated into fancy Swiss buttercream.  

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Miel de Tuna - Prickly Pear Syrup

  • Tuna, prickly pear fruit
  • Water as needed

Place tuna in a large bucket and cover with cold water and soak for two or three hours, changing out the water if desired. Soaking allows the spines to mostly drop off the fruit, but not completely. Carefully pick through the fruit and remove any damaged ones.

Working in a large heavy bottomed stainless steel pot, bring fruit and 2 inches of water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook, loosely covered until the fruit have softened completely.

Gently mash the fruit with a potato masher until completely broken up. Continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool until comfortable straining the liquid into a clean pot through 2 layers of fine mesh strainers.

Cook the liquid at a gentle simmer until thickened to a syrup consistency. Heat will need to be reduced as the amount of liquid goes down. Be very conscious of this as syrup consistency nears as syrup can begin to burn very quickly. Check syrup thickness by dipping a clean metal spoon into the syrup and swiping a clean finger across the back of the spoon. When at the correct level of reduction, syrup will stick to the metal and not drip.

Strain syrup one more time into sanitized heatproof glass jars. Keep refrigerated up to 6 months.

Note: The pulpy mass of the fruit may be reserved, dried, and seeds picked out, and ground into a meal to add to baked goods, soups, etc. 

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