Prickly pears are still in grocery stores. Odds are you’ve seen them, look right at them, and kept on walking to go grab some bell peppers or something. I know I did for a while. But they’ve been taunting me this year.
Their taste is kind of like a cross between a slightly tropical watermelon, and cucumber. They have seeds that, while technically edible, are hard as rocks and nearly impossible to eat. From the outside they can look ovular like a kiwi, or more pear-shaped, ranging in colors from bright red, to fuchsia, orange, and yellow-green. Being that they are the fruit of a cactus, naturally they have spines on their skin. Usually the large spikes are removed by the time the fruit makes its way to the grocery store, but the smaller, less visible ones might be left behind so handle them with care. If you find that they have a lot of those little spikes on them, it’s best to handle them with metal tongs or very thick, heavy-duty leather work gloves to avoid having to spend hours tweezing tiny little pins out of your fingers.
These things are eaten all over the world. Typically we think of them as Mexican fare, but they’re grown and eaten all over, from parts of the Caribbean to Sicily. In Mexico, they’re often referred to as “tunas”. Can you imagine how confusing that would be at, I don’t know, a juice bar: “Flavor options: strawberry, mango, carrot, kale, tunas….”. There’s also a Sicilian liqueur made from their juice that I’m dying to get my hands on one of these days.
Prickly pears are juiced, jellied, turned into sorbet, salad dressing, added to salads or salsas, or just simply snacked on. When I first bought a few of these a while back and tasted them fresh, and thought of Sicilians picking and eating these, I immediately knew what I was going to use them for: a Lemon Drop Martini. Granted, it’s not exactly an Italian cocktail, but I always think of Italy when I make or drink one because of the Amalfi lemon liqueur I use; limoncello. Geographically speaking, Amalfi isn’t that far from Siciliy, and they both share coastal waters so it’s not hard for me to imagine the two ingredients coming together. I know that most Lemon Drops are vodka, triple sec, and lemon juice, but I think without limoncello you’re really missing out on the essence of lemon.
Peel the prickly pear, puree the flesh, and strain through a fine mesh sieve to catch the seeds. The more you strain it, the more pulp the sieve will catch, and the clearer the juice will be—this is a matter of preference though. Mix some of the juice with vodka (unflavored or citrus flavored, per preference), limoncello, and fresh lemon juice, shake it with some ice and strain into a martini glass for the ultimate refreshing, sweet, and sharp Lemon Drop martini.
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