Is this the pinkest pink lemonade you've ever seen? That hot color is all natural, courtesy of a couple of teaspoons of juice from tunas, the fruits of a native prickly pear cactus.
My paternal grandmother made jams, jellies, and preserves from such wild Texas fruits as prickly pears, mustang grapes (Vitis mustangensis), algerita berries (Mahonia haematocarpa), and wild plums. Lacking the forethought to learn her recipes before she died, I was forced to develop my own prickly pear protocol by trial and error.
I got off to a rocky start with the fruits of Opuntia phaeacantha, which are only red on the outside; the resulting jelly tasted okay but was far from the visual treat I remembered. The proper species, Opuntia engelmannii, produced a gorgeous magenta juice, but I learned the hard way that the pigment is heat sensitive. The fruits are naturally low in the pectin that produces jelly, and cooking the syrup a little longer to compensate can result in a sudden, dramatic loss of color.
Getting a product with good body and good color may take double or triple the pectin you'd add to apple or grape juice plus extra sugar, so prickly pear jelly can get a little pricey. Fortunately, prickly pear syrup is just as tasty and even more versatile. Its delicate flavor and intense color make a lovely addition to pancakes, waffles, ice cream, cheesecake, fruit salads, and even in Tequila Sunrises in place of grenadine (which usually contains artificial coloring).
Unsweetened prickly pear juice can be combined with another native American fruit for a desert twist on a traditional holiday condiment. If you have access to plump, juicy prickly pear fruits and don't mind taking a little food out of the mouths of thrashers, quail, javelinas, and even butterflies such as the Viceroy at right, collect a few and try this recipe:
1 c. tuna (prickly pear fruit) juice
10-12 oz. ripe cranberries
1 c. white sugar
Harvest 5 to 10 medium to large tunas. Salad tongs are useful for removing them from the plant, as you do NOT want to get the nasty little glochids in your skin. Wash the fruits thoroughly to remove dust and as many of the glochids as possible (a vegetable brush will help, though I once used the rinse setting at a manual car wash); trimming off the round blossom scar is optional. Place in a glass or enamel pan, cover just to the tops of the fruits with water, bring to a boil, then drop the heat and simmer for 5-7 minutes or until the water is deeply colored. Allow the fruits and water to cool, then either 1) mash with a potato masher or 2) pulse in a food processor until the larger chunks disappear. Strain juice and pulp through 3-4 layers of cheesecloth, squeezing the pulp gently to extract as much of the tuna goodness as possible without letting any stray glochids through.
Open a 12-ounce bag of cranberries, rinse in cold water, and put any underripe (white) berries aside for the birds. Combine berries in a glass or enamel saucepan with 1 cup extracted tuna juice and 1 cup white sugar (if you reduce the sugar or use a substitute, you may need to add a thickening agent to get a firm gel). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. (If necessary, use a heat diffuser or place saucepan inside a heavy skillet to avoid hot spots that can cause carmelization.) Serve hot or cold with meats or meat substitutes or just eat it all by itself when no one's looking.
Use leftover juice to flavor and color lemonade, tea, gelatin, or homemade sorbet or gelato. --SW