Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Prickly Pear and Pignon: Native Foods for Thanksgiving

I had planned to write a detailed story of my first prickly pear harvest and preparation, but I find myself yet again with too little time and a conviction that it is more important to get this to you in time for everyone’s favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. It is odd for us New Englanders to think that cactus and pignon trees are the source of Thanksgiving holiday foods, but yes: they are as native as wild turkeys and corn. So here I am, recommending these desert natives as foods at home on your Thanksgiving table as cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.

Actually, I’m in Connecticut as I write this and tomorrow expect to have just about as Yankee a Thanksgiving meal as any Plymouth Pilgrim.  But do try to enter into the idea that the fruit, or “tunas,”
of a paddle cactus (nopales or opuntia) is tantamount to maize. The Indians here in the Southwestern desert rely on it much as their East Coast counterparts do corn, and it is just about as versatile.

Preparation, however, is a little trickier, as I found out. The tunas need to be removed with a pair of tongs (ironically, corn tongs do very well) so you do not come into contact with the fine spines directly. Or at least, that is the idea. (Cut to two months after I harvested, when one of my fingers swelled and blackened to the point that emergency physicians thought I’d had a “vascular event” and might lose my finger, only to have that very finger, swollen and black to bursting, push out a tiny, hairlike cactus spine in an amazing example of the body rejecting what is not good for it, after which all returned to fleshy normal after a few days).

Bizarre, yes, but to continue the story back in the kitchen: after removing the tunas from the cactus, they need to be smashed/pureed, and then sieved, sieved, sieved to a smooth puree. A lot of work, sort of like dealing with rose hips, but then one has a thick juice of many proclivities. Margaritas are nice. Jelly. Sauces, from barbecue to reductions. And this ice cream, which I paired with another native item, pine nuts. Slightly candied, they complemented the watermelon-like taste of the prickly pear, and added a crunchy brown contrast to the prickly pear’s pink presence. Different, and nice.

Wishing you all a Thanksgiving that, whether through succotash or cornmeal or maple syrup, recognizes, in gratitude, the native foods that keep us all alive, and happy.

Prickly Pear Pinon Ice Cream

I used a base from Jeni’s ice cream book, and an adaptation of her praline recipe. Makes 1 qt.

2 c whole milk
1 T + 1 tea cornstarch
1.5 oz cream cheese, softened
¼ tea fine sea salt
1 ¼ c heavy cream
2/3 c sugar
2 T light corn syrup
1/3 c prickly pear puree

1/3-1/2 cup pignon praline (see below)

Place the bowl of an ice cream maker into the freezer about 8 hrs before you plan to make ice cream, or overnight.

Whisk 2 T of the milk with the cornstarch. In a small bowl, whisk the cream cheese until smooth.
In a large saucepan, combine the remaining milk with the heavy cream, sugar, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil and cook over moderate for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch mixture. Return to a boil and cook over moderately high heat until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 1 minute.
Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture and salt into the cream cheese until smooth. Stir in the prickly pear puree, adding enough to make a vivid pink, Pepto-Bismol-like color. Refrigerate til cold, or overnight. Place the chilled bowl into the ice cream maker; burn it on and add the ice cream base into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. It will take about 20 minutes for the ice cream to being pulling away from the aides, at which point it is done. Pack the ice cream into containers, alternating with the pignon praline (below), and press a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment directly onto the surface of the ice cream. Seal with a lid and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

Pignon Praline

Makes about 1 cup.
1 scant cup pignon/pine nuts
1 T unsalted butter
1 T maple syrup
1 T sugar
2 T natural local honey (I used raspberry honey)
¼ tea fine sea salt
Dusting of cayenne, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Melt the butter with the sugar and maple surup; add the salt and cayenne, and stir. Put the nuts into a small bowl and stir in the butter-sugar-spice mixture. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes; stir, and bake another 5 minutes. Remove and let cool completely, stirring occasionally to break them up. Store in a tin or freeze.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dates: Luscious and Local

When I saw the big boxes of slightly dusty, fresh picked dates at the farmer's market, I had to buy some. At $10 per pound, they were not cheap—although I don’t know, maybe that is not too bad for dates. But they were beautiful.  There were two varieties, Hadrawi and Halawi. The Halawi is golden-brown, plump and fleshy, soft and caramel-y sweet; the larger Hadrawi is darker, almost mahogany in color, an oblong, rich, smokey-sweet fruit.

I don’t usually eat dates out of hand; to me, they are for putting into things like date-nut bread. But the farmer offered me to taste them so I could decide which of the varieties to buy, and I was really surprised by how wonderful they were: luxurious, rich, luscious are words that come to mind. Here, clearly, was a case—as in so many other foods from fish to potatoes—where local really makes a difference, even the difference between whether you eat it or not.

I ended up buying half Hadrawi and half Halawi dates, and that is the combination I used in this cake. It is an adaptation of a recipe from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, adjusted to accommodate what I had on hand.

Chocolate Date Pistachio Cake

You can substitute 1 oz of unsweetened chocolate for the cocoa and eliminate the 2 T water, and walnuts or pecans for the pistachios. Serves 9.

6 oz very fresh dates
1/3 tea baking soda
¼ boiling water

1 oz semisweet chocolate
2 T unsweetened cocoa
2 T water

4 oz (1 stick) butter, softened
¼ tea salt
2/3 cup sugar
½ tea vanilla
1 large egg
¾ cup sifted a-p flour
1/3 c sour cream
½ cup unsalted, shelled roasted pistachios

Line an 8” square pan with foil and butter it generously. Preheat the oven to 350F.

Pit the dates (I use my fingers). With a very sharp knife, slice the dates thinly, then cut them crosswise into small pieces. Sprinkle the baking soda and water over; stir and set aside.

Combine the chocolate, cocoa, and water in a small bowl or cup, and microwave for a minute or two, til the chocolate is melted. Stir to combine; add more water if needed to make a smooth paste.

Cream the butter with the salt and sugar. Add the vanilla, chocolate, and egg and beat until just combined. Add the flour and sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour. Stir in the dates with their liquid and the pistachios.

Pour/spoon into the prepared pan and spread it evenly with the back of a spoon. Bake in the center of the oven for about 45 minutes.  Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes; turn out and remove the foil. Let cool completely before cutting into squares or thick slices. Serve plain or with a little butter.