Wednesday, September 24, 2008

All Shades of Crazy

In the city of New York, it is not uncommon to see things that you've never seen before. For me it's a daily occurrence. Correction, for me it's multiple-times daily occurrence. I'm no prude, but in the Midwest, from where I recently moved, men dressed like Vegas showgirls don't typically prance around on rollerskates in the park with 80's-style boom boxes in tow. That sort of performance was generally restricted to the stages of certain taboo-but-fabulous nightclubs. The incredible variety of people who call this place home is wonderful and inspiring. Some 8+ million, all unique, with so many different cultures, backgrounds and ethnic groups represented. People watching in New York is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

Similarly, the variety of food available in New York is astounding. All these people from everywhere in the world, and they all need to eat. There's a guy on my street corner who sells fruits and veggies from his little cart. Every day he's out there, and every day I walk by; occasionally I'll check out what he's got. Usually it's the same stuff - tomatoes, plums, grapes, avocado, zucchini. Sometimes it looks good, sometimes not. The other day I was hurriedly walking past, late for whatever, but with a quick glance I noticed something I had never seen before. And not just never seen at the cart, but really never seen before in any of my Midwest market excursions. Cactus Pear for $1 - a roundish purpley bulb that seemed to have a case of bad acne. I made a mental note: I must return in the morning to check this out. But to my bewilderment, by the time I went back the next day, they were sold out. What were these peculiar things that had suddenly appeared, and who was snatching them up so fast? I decided they must be fantastic and made a B-line (or, more accurately, the 1-line train) for food mecca, also known as Chelsea Market. And lucky me, there they were on display right near the register.

I tossed a few into my basket, and didn't even make it home before I started googling. As it turns out, what I had picked up is an ancient and fascinating fruit that grows from cactus stems (hence the name). There are many different varietals, most of which are not available in the U.S. It is thought to have medicinal purposes, specifically for treating and preventing diabetes, and lowering bad cholesterol while raising the good. It normally ripens and is ready for harvesting in early fall, which would explain its sudden appearance. It is used most commonly for jams, jellies and spreads, dressing, beverage syrups, or dessert fillings. I was intrigued. I couldn't wait to get home.

Once in my kitchen, I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I just cut it in half to see what I was working with. Whatever the fruit lacked aesthetically on the outside it more than made up for on the inside. The middle is a gorgeous magenta, similar to the rich hue of a beet. If it had been fragrant, I might have passed out from the shocking contrast. The smell was very mild, and a little sweet, almost melon-like. The taste and texture was also like a soft melon or papaya. Coolly refreshing with subdued sweetness. Upon closer inspection, it was clear why it is so popular in jams and syrups. Not only is the inside so soft it almost melts, but it is also dotted with small, tough black seeds. They can be consumed, but foreseeing a stomach ache, I decided that for any of my recipes they must be strained out. I experimented with a simple syrup to ease into this new found treat.

Recipe for a simple Cactus Pear Syrup:
  • 2 cactus pears
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Peal the skin off the cactus pear with a paring knife, being mindful of any nubs or remaining prickles on the outside. Discard skin, and dice the flesh. In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add the sugar. Lower the heat to a simmer and stir until dissolved. Stir in the diced fruit, mashing into the syrup. Simmer for about 5-10 minutes until the magenta color has fully infused into the liquid. Turn off the heat and let cool, and push through a strainer. I tried a tablespoon of it mixed with some lemonade and a sprig of mint, and it was pretty tasty. It would make a great addition to a lime margarita.

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