52 Foods Week Forty Three: Prickly Pear

“Gimme danger little stranger, and I’ll give you a thrill,” Iggy Pop sang, and he could well have been referring to the prickly pear, the fruit of cactus native to Mexico and the Western United States. Prickly pears, reddish ovoids that grow off the end of flat cactus pads, are dotted with tiny spines that easily become lodged in skin, leading to their foreboding name. Inside the unfriendly peel, the fruit is mildly sweet, with a flavor somewhat like kiwi, but less tart. I picked up six of the spiny fruits the Towani Organic Farm booth at the Farmers Market.

Handle with Care

When I was a child, my grandmother had a collection of drinking glasses with images of cacti and a description of the prickly pear. They were actually old jelly jars, for what, I assume, is a long forgotten prickly pear jelly brand. Until recently, I had never noticed any prickly pear products and definitely had not seen the actual fruit for sale. I considered trying to make a jelly, but figuring that my collection of prickly pears was a bit small for a good batch of jelly—and noticing that many people liked the juice in cocktails—I decided that a prickly pear gomme syrup might be a better project.

I began by peeling the prickly pears, a process that involves slicing off both ends, then cutting a slit the length of the fruit and carefully peeling the skin back with a gloved hand.

Cut Slit

After a little work, I had six peeled prickly pears ready to purée in the food processor.

Blend in Food Processor

I strained the purée through a mesh sieve, collecting the large, hard seeds. Six prickly pears yielded about a cup and a half of juice. I put the juice in a sauce pot and added a cup of sugar, bringing it slowly to a boil.

Cook with Sugar

When the sugar dissolved and the syrup reached a boil, I reduced the heat and added some gum arabic powder. Gum arabic, which is easiest to find in the bulk section of health food stores, is an emulsifier that makes very silky syrups, typically called gomme syrup or just gomme. I stirred the simmering syrup continuously to dissolve the gum arabic, but foolishly used too much, which required extensive straining. Had I been more conservative with my measures, after about 5 minutes I would have had a smooth syrup with all the sugar and gum fully dissolved.

I strained the prickly pear gomme into a small jar and added a tablespoon of orange blossom water to round out the flavor. It’s very smooth, with a well balanced sweetness and fruitiness that can only be described as cactusy.

All the photos are here. A cocktail recipe will follow once I find something I like.

Prickly Pear Gomme Syrup

6 prickly pears
1 cup fine sugar
2 teaspoons gum arabic
1 tablespoon orange blossom water

Carefully peel prickly pears and purée in blender or food processor. Strain out seeds, and slowly heat purée with sugar in a small sauce pot. When mixture comes to a boil and sugar is fully dissolved, reduce heat and stir in gum arabic. Keep stirring until fully dissolved. Remove syrup from heat and let cool. Add orange blossom water and refrigerate. Syrup should keep two to four weeks.

Prickly Pear Syrup

52 Foods Week Forty Two: Tomato

With the school year in full swing and a busy month of birthdays, out of town guests and costume parties, it’s sometimes hard to carve out time to cook. Fortunately, this lack of time coincided with the end of tomato season, a confluence that naturally led to cooking a big batch of tomato sauce that we could freeze for nights when boiling pasta water is about all the cooking energy we can muster.

Tomato sauce was at least a weekly staple in our home when I was young, and it was also one of the first things I learned to cook after going to college. My recipe, which has served me well for over a decade, uses tomatoes, an onion, a few garlic cloves, salt, red wine and a whole lot of (ideally fresh) rosemary.

We ordered a load of roma tomatoes from Gauchito Hills Produce, a CSA started by a couple of our friends. Ripe roma tomatoes are ideal for tomato sauce, having a great balance of flesh and juice. The end of the season romas were soft and super ripe. I couldn’t wait to get them peeled and into a large pot.

I washed the tomatoes then cut an X on the bottom end of each one and placed them in a pot of boiling water to loosen the skin.

Sliced On the Bottom

After each tomato had soaked for five or ten minutes, I pulled them out and let them cool to where I could remove the skin. I sliced the tops off them as well, and soon had a large bowlful of whole, peeled tomatoes.

Peeled Tomatoes

I chopped an onion and peeled and smashed five or six garlic cloves then tossed those in a large pot with some olive oil to sauté. On top of this, I added three sprigs of fresh rosemary.

Onion, Garlic and Rosemary

After the onions were translucent, I poured in the bowl of tomatoes, followed by red wine and some salt, then covered them to simmer over low heat for three hours.

Add Tomatoes, Wine and Salt

I mostly left the tomatoes untouched while they cooked, only taking a minute to break them up midway through. After three hours they had caramelized a bit, and darkened to a familiar tomato sauce hue. I removed them from heat and let the sauce cool.

After Three Hours Cooking

When it came time to eat our first tomato sauce meal, I pulled the full batch of sauce from the fridge and puréed it all in the food processor. After reserving a portion to heat for dinner, I poured the rest of the sauce into a couple jars to freeze.

In Jars

We enjoyed the first round of tomato sauce over al dente spaghetti, with some freshly ground pepper and freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.

On Spaghetti

The photos are here.

52 Foods Week Forty One: Black Radishes

Some foods are charismatic by virtue of their story. The Poulet Bleu’s development in North America is as exciting as its blue feet, and while Jimmy Nardello peppers look entirely commonplace, their name, and the history it alludes to, give them a leg up on other, similar foods. Still others wear their oddities in the open in odd shapes and colors, such as the Black Spanish Radishes from Fiddler’s Green Farm that we picked up at the Farmers’ Market.

Black radishes have a dark black skin and resemble beets in shape and size, being much larger than the red radishes we typically eat. Our radish monger advised us to peel and roast them as we would potatoes. Being a household that often roasts root vegetables in the winter, it seemed like we could easily fashion a recipe around these dark specimens.

We began by peeling the black skin to reveal the pale white flesh. The contrast between the outer and inner radish was rather impressive and surprising.

Peeling the Radishes

I sliced the radishes into bite sized pieces and took the opportunity to taste a bit. Raw, the radish was extremely bitter and astringent. Jen gave me a look that questioned my resolve to continue with the dish, but I assured her I thought that roasting would mellow the flavors and arrive at a mild but interesting vegetable dish. We combined them with a chopped onion, seasoned them with salt and thyme, then drizzled on some olive oil and white wine and placed them in the oven to cook.

Chopped with Onions, Oil, Wine and Thyme

The radishes took about an hour to cook through, becoming slightly translucent and a little brown around the edges. We plated them alongside a tasty piece of swordfish and headed to the table to enjoy the meal.

Chopped with Onions, Oil, Wine and Thyme

Unfortunately, I can’t say that the roasting did enough to mellow the bitterness. I made it about halfway through my serving, Jen less than that, before we both decided to drop the brave faces and admit defeat. I had to concede this round to the radishes, but I’ve read that covering them with salt then squeezing the juice out can reduce the bitterness. I’ll have to try that in the future. In the meantime, at least the swordfish was good.

Roasted Black Radishes and Swordfish

52 Foods Week Forty: Misome

Last week at the Farmers’ Market we discovered misome, a hybrid asian green designed for high temperatures. High temperatures are exactly what Fiddler’s Green Farm, a Yolo County grower, contends with. We brought home a large bunch, unsure what to do with it. Misome resembles a cross between baby bok choy and kale, with dark leaves and thin, pale stalks. Raw, the stalks are firm and a bit creamy and the leaves taste like broccoli, with a tinge of spiciness at the end.

My research suggested that either pickling or stir frying would be a good preparation. We opted for a stir fry with shitaki mushrooms and skirt steak. I started by sautéing some chopped onions and garlic in grapeseed oil.

Onion and Garlic in Grapeseed Oil

When they became translucent and soft, I added shitaki mushrooms.

Add Shitaki Mushrooms

While the mushrooms softened, I washed the misome and chopped it in half, separating the stalks from the leaves.

Separate Stems

Next I added the stalks to the pan to let them get tender.

Add Stems

After about five minutes, I added the misome leaves as well.

Add Leaves

When the leaves were wilted, I removed the vegetables from the pan and added some crushed red pepper flakes. Then I prepped the skirt steak. We are big fans of Five Dot Ranch’s beef, and their skirt steak in particular. It’s nicely marbled, and cooked for a few minutes to medium rare it requires just a little salt and pepper to be melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

Five Dot Ranch Skirt Steak

I sliced the steak into small strips, about 3/4″ wide, then added it to the pan.

Add Steak to Pan

I let the steak sear all over, then poured a little soy sauce over it.

Add Soy Sauce

I also poured some teriyaki sauce over the vegetables, then returned them to the pan with the steak.

Return Veggies to Pan

I stirred everything together and let it cook for another couple minutes, then removed it to a bowl and poured the pan juices on top.

Finished Stir Fry

We enjoyed this stir fry over white rice. The cooked misome was robust, with a bit of spice and bitterness, and accompanied the steak and shitakis nicely. I expect that using a second bunch of misome instead of the steak would be very successful as a vegetarian stir fry, if that were your preference.

Misome, Steak and Mushroom Stir Fry

All the photos are here.

52 Foods Week Thirty Nine: Red Ruffled Pimiento

The end of summer is truly the best time for the Farmers’ Market, both due to the tremendous selection and the incredible colors of the peppers, tomatoes and zucchini that populate so many tables and produce baskets. Among the notable specimens a few weeks ago were the red ruffled pimientos from Lloyds’ Produce. These pimientos are bright red, about the size of a nectarine and a little squat. I grabbed five of them in a trip that also yielded three pounds of bacon, some heirloom tomatoes and I can’t recall what else.

I picked up so much produce that I actually forgot about the pimientos until a few weeks later, when I uncovered them in our quite full produce drawer. Fortunately, they were still intact—firm and bright red. One thing I could say for these guys before I even tasted them was that they were hardy. I recently made a big batch of meatballs and saved a lot of the meat for later use. The pimientos were about the right size to accommodate a meatball inside, so I decided to stuff them with some of the meatball mixture. I began by cutting the caps off and removing the seeds.

Tops Cut Off and Seeds Removed

I spooned the meatball mixture into each pimiento, filling them to the brim. My meatball recipe is one of my only cooking secrets, but I think any dense ground meat mixture would work, as would Italian sausage. Once stuffed, I put them in the oven to bake at 350ºF.

Stuffed with Meatball

After 30 minutes, I pulled them out and flipped them meat side down. Then returned them to the oven.


After another 15 minutes, I flipped them back over and covered the tops with shredded parmigiano reggiano, then returned them to the oven for another 10 minutes or so, using the broiler for the last three minutes.

Cover with Parmigiano

The pimentos came out soft and lightly charred around the edges with the cheese and meat browned on top. We served them atop toasted fregola with tomatoes and garlic. The red ruffled pimientos were a little spicier and less sweet than a red pepper, but not hot. The meatball complemented them well, and together with the tomatoes in the fregola created something like a deconstructed arribbiata.

Meatball Stuffed Red Ruffled Pimientos over Toasted Fregola

All the photos are here.