But it doesn’t stop me from ordering a prickly pear margarita any time I see one on a menu, and somehow the bartenders of west Texas must have received advance notice of my preferences, prepping accordingly for our road trip/glamping adventures this past August. Every single prickly pear margarita I tried out there, whether at the Chisos Mountains Lodge within Big Bend National Park or the Hotel Paisano in Marfa managed to nail the balance of sweet and sour superbly. (I went with the more traditional-ish margarita at Cochineal in Marfa because damn, that presentation!)
And just like those west Texas bartenders knew what to do for me, the grocery gods must have sensed that I was missing those perfect margaritas (and the wide vistas and compelling vibe of west Texas in general); last week, I discovered a heaping pile of ripe prickly pears in my local Fairway. If you, like me, live in the Northeast or another part of the country where prickly pears don’t grow on trees—er, cacti—and you have a hard time finding fresh specimens in the market, you know you gotta scoop up ingredients when you see them. It was time to stock up with a big batch of prickly pear juice for my own margarita mixing.
A fresh prickly pear has a delicate, slightly vegetal sweetness; though the color would make you think otherwise, it’s not a strong taste. Because most prickly pear syrups, whether bottled or from homemade recipes, tend to mask this subtle flavor with granulated sugar or agave, I wanted to go in another direction. I didn’t want a super sweet, thick and sugary syrup. So I didn’t make one!
Instead, this quick-simmered prickly pear juice is made with white grape juice (the secret blank-slate ingredient in most of the juices on the shelves at your supermarket; read those ingredient lists, kids!) along with aloe vera juice and lime zest to bump up the acidity without going too over the top. It’s fresh, it’s not cloying, and it makes enough for four generous margaritas.
Bonus: because it’s a juice and not a syrup, you can freeze this prickly pear margarita base in ice cube trays. That’s what I’ll be doing, since who knows the next time I’ll see fresh prickly pears at the market? My King Cube silicone ice trays each hold 1/2 cup of liquid, which just so happens to melt into a quantity that works just great for a single margarita.
And if anyone knows how to make prickly pear cacti grow in a New Jersey yard, please come over and hook a gal up. I’ll give you free margaritas for life.
Prickly Pear Margaritas
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes plus cooling time for the juice
Makes 4 margaritas
For the juice:
- 2 pounds ripe prickly pears
- 1 cup aloe vera juice
- 1 cup white grape juice
- zest of 2 limes
For the margaritas:
- kosher salt for rimming the glasses (optional)
- 1 batch prickly pear juice
- 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from 8-10 large limes)
- 3/4 cup tequila
Make the prickly pear juice:
Slice the prickly pears in half lengthwise. Use your trusty grapefruit spoon (what, you don’t have a grapefruit spoon? Get with the program!) to scoop the innards of each half into a 2-quart saucepan.
Pour the aloe vera and white grape juices into the saucepan and zest the limes into the saucepan.
Bring to a simmer over medium hat and cook for about 5 minutes, using a potato masher or silicone spatula to mash the prickly pear pieces until they are mushy and the seeds are loose and free-floating.
Drain the juice through a fine mesh strainer, stirring and pressing gently to extract all the juice. You should end up with about 2 1/2 cups of juice.
Cool completely before freezing or making margaritas.
Make the margaritas:
Cut a lime in half and run it around the rims of 4 12-ounce cocktail glasses or margarita glasses. Dip the rims of the glasses in kosher salt. Fill the glasses with ice.
In a 2-quart pitcher, stir the prickly pear juice, lime juice, and tequila together.
Pour the margaritas into the prepared glasses. Serve immediately.