In San Diego, for about a year I lived in a duplex apartment that had an enormous cactus shielding the view from the street. Named El Viejo (The Old), it was approximately 30 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet tall, and had to be at least 70 years old. Looked a bit like this, only bigger:

El Viejo grew lots and lots of prickly pears in the summer. Rarely would a summer day go by when we’d have at least one Mexican family drive up and ask permission to take a few. They’d snap them off with tongs or just gloves, and quickly scrape off the spines with a wisk broom. Not being interested in getting itsy-bitsy, microscopic spines in my skin, I never touched them.

On our property, we have three cactus patches. Which is remarkable because we get below-freezing temperatures in the winter. But they seem to flourish. Go figure. We don’t water them or anything. In fact, one of them has been sporting a pair of impressive, baseball-sized prickly pears:

They look like alien eggs about to burst.

They look like alien eggs about to burst.

Again, I stay far away from them. Those little fuzzy dots? Each contain thousands of tiny spines. You don’t get them out; you have to suffer until they come out with your skin cells.

ANYHOO, recently at the supermarket, I’ve been seeing already-cleaned prickly pears! So I picked up a half dozen. Even still, I managed to get a spine in my hand, but by the time I got home it seemed to have worked its way out. From then on, I only handled the pears with tongs, just in case. So, without further ado, I present:

Spicy Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly

Ingredients:

Prickly pears

Lemon or lime juice

Chili peppers

Sugar

Pectin

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Holding the pears with tongs at all times, first cut off the ends, then set on one end and cut vertical slices downward, going all the way around.

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You can put the tongs down now and handle the flesh directly. Cut in half lengthwise.

Just look at that gorgeous ruby red color. Just LOOK at it!

Just look at that gorgeous ruby red color. Just LOOK at it!

Be sure to cut out this little hard circle at the flower end.

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Cut into rough chunks and add to a pot with some peppers. Add a couple-three tablespoons of lemon or lime juice.

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Cook on medium-low heat, stirring often, until juices release.

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Continue cooking, smashing fruit with a potato masher, for 15-20 minutes.

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The prickly pear flesh is very fibrous, pulpy, and full of seeds throughout. So at this stage we’re going to strain all that stuff out, leaving behind just the juice. First, I simply poured the mixture through a colander and helped smoosh out the liquid with the potato masher:

First "pressing"

First “pressing”

Then I took the results from that, which still contained a lot of seeds, and ran that through a fine-mesh sieve. I continued to smoosh the first pressing while that drained, and added that liquid to the sieve. Finally, I smooshed the seeds in the sieve with the back of a spoon until I’d squeezed out all the juice I could.

Second "pressing"

Second “press”

The resulting juice was short on volume, but long on richness. It was so thick and dark, in fact, that I couldn’t imagine using it for jelly. So I added at least an equal amount of fresh water to thin it out.

Add sugar (I used 3/4 cup), and bring to a simmer. Add pectin (I used 6 TBSP) and another splash of lemon juice to activate it. Stir until thoroughly combined and heated.

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Transfer to jars and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. I LOVE the ruby-red color.

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They say prickly pear has a unique flavor, described as suggestive of strawberry, melon, kiwi, watermelon, white peach, and even bubble gum. I’d agree with the watermelon, the bubble gum, and maybe even a hint of cherry.

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