Cactus Pear Jelly

05 Sep

Cactus Pear Jelly

M: Cactus pears, also called cactus fruit, prickly pears or tunas, grow on the end of cactus paddles, the purple fruit looking like odd, swollen fingers. Here in North Carolina, they’re in season from September into December and the shockingly vibrant color and watermelon-meets-kiwi sweetness of the flesh makes it a winner eaten raw, used in relishes or juiced for use in sorbet, cocktails or, of course, jelly. It’s one of my favorite fall fruits. So why do I feel a hint of dread when I hear it’s time to harvest?

It’s probably because I’ve never once collected the prickly pears without taking a little damage. The cacti themselves have sharp, inch-long thorns that will easily stick you right through your Levi’s. If you do manage to avoid and contact with the paddles, the fruit itself is covered with hair-like barbs that make it all but impossible to pick them bare-handed or even wearing thin gloves. It’s worth the effort, but go prepared. Wear heavy leather gloves or use tongs to twist the fruit free from the paddle and if you drop one into the void between cacti, don’t be a hero. Let it go.

Once you get them home, hold the fruit with tongs and scrub the barbs off using a firm brush. Cut the ends off and use a knife to score one side to peel. There are different techniques for extracting the juice and dealing with the small seeds within. I don’t cook them, I don’t slice them open and scrape out the seeds, i don’t mash them by hand. Instead, toss the fruit into the blender (or food processor) whole and liquify the lot of them. Pour through a fine sieve or cheesecloth to remove remaining solids with a yield of roughly a cup of juice per pound of fruit.

Who’d have thought making the jelly would be the easy part of this recipe for making jelly? With the addition of a little lime juice for flavor and acidity, this is a straightforward dry pectin jelly that is quick to make and tastes as good as it looks. Again, worth it. But tread carefully among the cacti.


Cactus Pear Jelly
A simple recipe for a vibrant cactus pear jelly that is worth the effort of harvesting the thorny fruit. Just make sure to wear gloves.
  • 3½ cups cactus pear juice
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 1 (1.75 oz) package dry pectin
  • 4½ cups sugar
  1. Combine cactus pear juice, lime juice and dry pectin in a large, heavy pot and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.
  2. Add sugar and return to boil for one minute.
  3. Remove from heat and ladle into six sterilized half pint jars, leaving ¼" of head space.
  4. Cap jars with lids and bands.
  5. Process 5 minutes to in a boiling water bath to seal.



Parsons Vegetable Beef Stew

07 Feb


M: What’s the difference between soup and stew? If you go strictly by their definitions, it’s a matter of how much liquid is in there. Soup is a liquid food that sometimes has meat or vegetables in it, while stew is a dish of meat and/or vegetables slowly cooked in liquid. That all makes sense, but if I make a particularly hearty chicken noodle soup, does it become  chicken noodle stew? Perhaps. Is chili a stew? I suppose so. Minestrone sometimes seems pretty stew-like, but is usually thin enough to be correctly called a soup and there are plenty of beef and vegetable soup recipes out there one wouldn’t confuse with stew. And then there’s stew that will never ever spark this culinary debate.

This is that stew.

Loaded with beef, potatoes, carrots and whatever stew-friendly vegetables may be lurking in the pantry or root cellar, put down the spoon and grab a fork. A nice, long simmer makes everything tender, but not too mushy and thickens the consommé to a not-quite gravy consistency that is just about perfect without a hint of flour or corn starch, especially if you include okra in your melange of vegetables. This winter dish nails it exactly as written.

What to change

All that said, it’s stew, which means I rarely stick to the recipe. It’s just to easy to tinker with, depending on what’s in the house. As written, it has an open door policy on what vegetables go into the mix, which is a very good thing. Parsnips, leeks rutabaga.. If it seems like it will play well in the stew without disintegrating, in it goes. Herbs like rosemary and thyme can add a little depth to the flavor in small amounts and I sometimes increase the hot sauce to warm my bones on a cold winter day. Taste as you go and you won’t go too far wrong.

What not to change

Always sear the beef first and use the onions to deglaze the pot. The texture of the meat in important and that deglazing makes for a richer stew.

Don’t add flour or cornstarch. A nice simmer should create a  thick broth without crossing over into gravy territory.

Don’t stray too far on cook time. The window to simmer is wide and it’s tempting to turn this into a slow cooker recipe, and you can. Just don’t expect it to be as good if you leave it to simmer for eight or nine hours. The vegetables should be soft, but left to simmer too long will turn to mush. Conversely, rushing the stew will result in beef that is a little tough and doesn’t allow the flavors to fully develop.

Oh, and don’t forget the bread when serving. You’ll want some biscuits, cornbread or a hearty loaf of something to sop up every last bit of this winter favorite.

Recipe: Parsons Vegetable Beef Stew

Summary: Classic vegetable beef stew is what’s for dinner this winter and this easy recipe gets it just right (but we still can’t help but tinker with it). From The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.


  • 2 lb Beef Stew Meat
  • 2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Black Pepper
  • 3 T Unsalted Butter
  • 1 c Chopped Celery Leaves
  • 1 Large Onion, finely chopped
  • 1 (10.5-ounce) can beef consommé
  • 2 T Ketchup
  • 1 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 T Sugar
  • 4 dashes hot pepper sauce
  • 1 lb White Potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 lb Carrots, peeled an cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 lb Small Onions, peeled and quartered
  • 2 Stalks Celery, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 c Shredded Turnips, Garden Peas, Green Beans, Sliced Okra and/or other vegetables


  1. Season beef with salt and pepper and, working in batches, brown well in 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in a dutch oven over medium-high heat, added butter as needed.
  2. Transfer browned meat into a bowl.
  3. Add celery leaves and onion to pot, stirring to coat and deglaze.
  4. Add consommé, stirring and scraping to deglaze bottom of pot.
  5. Fill consommé can with water and add to pot.
  6. Stir in ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, and hot sauce.
  7. Return meat to pot and add water, if needed, to cover.
  8. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer one hour.
  9. Stir in potatoes, carrots, onions, celery and optional vegetables and simmer additional 1 1/2 – 2 hours (until meat is tender).
  10. Season with salt and pepper to taste.



On tangents…..and homemade tonics.

16 May

Homemade Tonic Syrup


K: What I’m about to talk about here today is not really anything particularly “Southern”, although the southern states certainly did have their fair share of Malaria back in the day, and it DOES get awfully hot in the South, requiring us to quaff many an ice-cold beverage…….and I guess we certainly do also have a reputation for loving our booze.    So…OK…if I REALLY stretched it, I could somehow find some sort of Southern theme in here.  I’m not going to bother though.  I started off down a tangent recently that has everything to do with ME and probably not all that much to do with my culture. Other than the drinking.  And the hot.



Gin and tonics, yeah? The quintessential summer highball!   Well, no.  Not for me. I was never a gin drinker. Until about a year ago, I’d have told you that I just didn’t drink gin. Ever. Never, ever because….ew….who drinks pine tree sap when they can have  sweet, caramel-y rum, or crisp, vibrant tequila? No sane person, right? Right! But…thanks to a trusted bartender (here, if you’re curious – Hi Melinda!) I have recently discovered that I was dead wrong about gin. It turns out that I DO like gin. Kind of a lot. More than is perhaps reasonable for someone who was an avowed gin-hater less than a year ago. I mean, I’m unlikely to ever just sit down with a glass over ice like I will with a nice brown liquor, but that’s not a thing I do in the summer anyway.  And we WERE talking about summer, weren’t we?  Yes we were.

Now, a few weeks ago, as the winter wore grudgingly on and I wanted to pretend spring was coming, I started thinking about the gin & tonic.  I thought about how I’d never liked them, assumed it was because I didn’t like the gin part of the equation, and never thought about it again.  But now I LIKE gin, so I decided to decided to figure out the perfect G&T for the upcoming summer. I began trying various different commercial tonics and tonic syrups, in search of this perfect thing, but still just couldn’t quite get behind anything I found.  Since we’ve already established that it’s not the gin, I already know I love fizzy drinks (home soda-making addict for nearly 5 years now), and I already use enough limes to support a small island nation on a regular basis, the culprit clearly had to be the tonic.  So I did what any normal person does.  I decided to try to make my own. I mean, I’ve been making syrups for our SodaStream since the beginning, so this didn’t seem especially exotic.

It took a month, and trials of three different recipes to finally narrow this down to my particular tastes, and this is where I landed.  A bright, citrus-forward, low-herb, tonic with enough bitterness from the cinchona bark (see notes below on what this is and where to get it) to stand up to any gin I’m likely to drink.  For the record, I’m still not a huge fan of strong juniper flavors, so keep that in mind if you happen to love a lot of pine forest in your gins. If you DO love the juniper, you try this, and it works for you, I’d LOVE to hear about it, so please come back and tell us in the comments!

Tonic Syrup:

1/2 C. Cinchona Bark, cut – NOT powdered (see notes for more info)
1 Grapefruit – All the zest, and  6 oz. of the juice
1 Lime – zest and juice
1 Orange – zest and juice
1 Lemon Grass stalk – lower portion only
1 tsp  Salt

4 C. Water
3 C. Sugar
4 TBS Citric acid (sold in brew stores, cheese-making supplies, and of course

1. Bring Cinchona bark and water to a nice rolling boil in a large saucepan, and boil 20 mins while zesting and juicing the citrus.

2.  Zest and juice each fruit (I just used a very sharp veg peeler for straining ease, but a microplane is also fine) and dice the lemon grass.

3. After 20 minutes at a boil, add the zest and juices of the citrus, along with the lemon grass and salt, to the pot.  Return to a boil for 2 or 3 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to steep at least 20 minutes, but no more than an hour.

4. Strain out solids with as fine a strainer as you can lay your hands on, and a couple of layers of muslin or fine cheesecloth if you have it.  If a little of the cinchona powder ends up in your tonic, it’s not a huge issue.  It will be more cloudy than, say…a commercial tonic syrup, but it will settle out, and can be managed with careful pouring later. I’m lucky enough to have both an extra-fine chinois AND ‘butter muslin’ used in cheese-making, and STILL I had a bit of residue, so believe me, the cinchona powder is a giant pain in the ass and you just SHOULD NOT stress about it.

5.  Once the solids are strained out, return the liquid to the saucepan and add the sugar and citric acid.  Heat this over med-hig heat, stirring frequently, until sugar is completely dissolved.  There is no need to bring this to a boil again.

6.  Cool completely, and put in your bottle of choice. Put this glorious bottle in your refrigerator.

DO refrigerate this syrup. It is NOT shelf-stable.  It lasts quite a while in the fridge. That is to say….it has so far lasted as long as it has taken me to drink through each batch. Let’s just say a month, as a ballpark.

What? OH!! You want to know how to DRINK it?  Well, OK, I’ll give you my ratios, but keep in mind…everyone’s tastes are different, so DO play around with the following recipe.  If you hit on some sort of ‘perfect’ ratio that ALL of your gin-swilling friends magically adore, please – for the love of summer – come back and tell us about it!

The Communal G&T

3/4 oz  Plymouth gin (or other dry, English-style gin)
1/2 oz  Tonic syrup
Dash  Celery bitters
4 oz  Soda (I used our SodaStream, but bottled/canned is also fine)
Lime wedge

Glass: Highball

Build drink in glass, starting with gin, tonic, and celery bitters. Stir well with ice. Top with more ice and soda. Garnish with split lime wedge, which should definitely be squeezed over the drink and tossed in with an air of Imperial Gusto.

Also, call me a heathen, but I ALWAYS want a straw. ALWAYS.


What the hell is Cinchona Bark?!? In short, it’s the bark of a Peruvian shrub and is the natural source of the Quinine we use to fight malaria. We don’t generally use the bark any longer on a large scale. We definitely still use quinine, but primarily it is a synthetic, highly concentrated, controlled-substance version.  We normal peeps have to tincture it out of the bark, which is sometimes difficult to find.  I find the powdered version UTTERLY annoying to deal with, and would probably never have made my second batch if I hadn’t found the cut version at Penn Herbs.  Save yourself the hassle. Don’t use the powder. IF, for whatever reason, that’s all you can lay your hands on, don’t boil it separately for the additional 20 mins.  Just add it and the citrus juices and peels at the same time and follow the directions from there.  ALSO, if that’s what you need to use, go here first and read this….and perhaps have a bit of a ‘tot’ before you start….



Sawmill Gravy

30 Apr


M: So many Southern dishes have their roots in poverty.  What that means is that the innovations are often based in pulling as much flavor out of as little as possible and stretching it as far as possible.  And that means gravy.  We’ve looked at a few here, including tomato gravy, corn gravy, red eye gravy and butterbean gravy.  And plenty more lie ahead.  I’ve never met a gravy that wasn’t right at home on a biscuit, but when someone says simply “biscuits and gravy”, sawmill is usually what they are talking about.  Named for it’s origins in the Appalachian logging camps, where long, grueling days of labor were often fueled by little more than biscuits, gravy and a strong cup of coffee.  Few ingredients, flavor rich and stick-to-the-ribs satisfying.  It may be considered “poor-do” gravy, but sometimes the poor do just fine.  This is Southern cuisine in its purest form and is a pleasure in any kitchen.

There is no “twist” here.  It is straightforward, honest cooking without apology.  I feel like I should have more to say about this recipe, but what can I tell you?  It is what it is.  Exactly what it is supposed to be, exactly as it is meant to be done, and exactly what I want for breakfast.  When biscuits and gravy is the order of the day, there is no substitute.

Recipe: Sawmill Gravy

Summary: When “biscuits and gravy” are on the menu, this is what you’ll get (if you’re very lucky). From The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.


  • 8 oz Smoked Breakfast Sausage
  • 4 T Flour
  • 1 c Whole Milk
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1/4 tsp Black Pepper


  1. Brown sausage in a large, cast iron skillet, breaking into large clumps with side of spoon.
  2. Transfer sausage to paper towel to drain and pour off all but 3-4 tablespoons of grease from skillet.
  3. Stir flour into skillet, stirring and scraping until flour browns.
  4. Slowly add milk, stirring constantly until gravy thickens.
  5. Stir sausage back in.
  6. Season with salt and pepper and serve over biscuits



Deep Fried Black-Eyed Peas

01 Sep

Deep Fried Black-Eyed Peas

M: Where have these been all my life? Only in the South, home of all things fried, would it occur to someone to deep fry black-eyed peas. The results are spectacular. Crispy, textured, and spiced with seafood seasoning and salt, they are eaten as one might snack on popcorn – by the handful and with difficulty stopping.

If this salty snack has a history of consequence in southern cuisine, I can’t find it. I first found the deep fried delicacy in a restaurant called Relish here in Raleigh. I was immediately hooked. Imagine my delight when, just a few weeks later, I stumbled upon them again, this time in what has become one of my favorite restaurants here in the Triangle, Beasley’s Chicken and Honey. Served in mason jars, they make one heck of a bar snack and pair perfectly with an cold beer (lucky thing they had plenty of that too).

This recipe isn’t exactly what I had at either restaurant, but it’s in the ball park. The hardest part is waiting a day for the peas to soak, so no one is going to blame you if you start with frozen instead of dried (just thaw them and pick things up at step 2). Err to the side of frying longer to make sure you get the light and crispy texture that makes these so darn good.

Recipe: Deep Fried Black-Eyed Peas

Summary: Deep fried and tossed in seafood seasoning, black-eyed peas are transformed into a distinctly southern bar snack.


  • 4 cups dried black eyed peas
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1 jalapeño, sliced lengthwise and seeded
  • Canola oil for frying
  • 3 teaspoons seafood seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt


  1. Soak beans overnight, then drain and rinse.
  2. Simmer beans, onion and jalapeño in a covered pot of water 35-45 minutes until tender.
  3. Drain beans, remove onion and jalapeño and let beans rest to dry or pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Heat oil in a pot to 375 degrees.
  5. Gently pour beans into oil and deep fry for 7-8 minutes, until crisp.
  6. Toss with seafood seasoning and salt.


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