Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Chef Suffers for Art – WHB

The bright red little bulbs ripen this time of year. Late fall, early winter. Filled with bright magenta fruit. A little sweet. Sort of like a strawberry, maybe, or, some say, like a watermelon. In any event, it is subtle, but very pleasant.

But unlike the defenseless strawberry or watermelon, these things come with insidiously clever mechanisms to discourage would-be chefs.

They are, after all, the fruit of a cactus. The prickly pear cactus, to be precise. Known in Spanish as ‘La Tuna’, these fruits are easy to find here in SoCal. With some care, I could pick some from the dry, hilly fields near our house. With some care!

Coming from a thing called a prickly pear cactus, nominally clever cooks would probably anticipate some painful issues with their use.

You can eat them raw, cutting them in half and scooping out the flesh much like you would with a kiwi fruit, spitting out the black seeds as you go. Or, you can scrape out the flesh, strain out the seeds, and use it as a base for a sauce, as we did for today’s recipe.

Careful inspection of the outside of these fruits reveled no obvious sharp spines. Even running a finger over the surface seemed to indicate that the fruit had been well cleaned.

But in the process of removing the flesh of the fruit from the peel, and the necessary tasting of the fruit in the process, each finger and the tongue eventually caught at least one of the sharp, almost microscopic spines, which had to be extracted carefully with a pair of tweezers.

Ah, the suffering of the would-be artist-chef!

And why, you are of course asking yourself, would anyone subject themselves to this culinary torture?

Well, obviously, ignorance is high on the list.

But in general, the fruit is really beautiful. Bright red, almost festive, this being Christmas time. And the flesh inside is even more brilliant. When I saw the basket of these in the market, I had picked out a half dozen before I had even given much thought to what to do with them.

Frequently the fruit is turned into jelly. Or syrup. But the best idea for using the fruit, after some searching, seems to be a wonderful sounding Margarita. The cactus fruit flesh pureed, and mixed up with tequila, a squeeze of lime, and some other things, and served over crushed ice. That’s on file for next summer, for sure.

I chose to make a sort of sauce out of the fruit. Reducing the flesh with some lime juice, and a touch of sweetener (agava nectar, of course).

The trick to a subtle flavored fruit like this is to reduce about 2/3s to 3/4s of the fruit, boiling out the excess water and thickening the mixture up, but also destroying some of the delicate flavors. To restore the lost flavor, the remaining ¼ to 1/3 of the fruit is added at the end, uncooked. The mixture, when pureed, is both fairly thick, as well as full-flavored.

I added some pomegranate seeds to the sauce just to make it that more festive.

I put this sauce over some shrimp I had marinated in cayenne, cumin and cinnamon. Lately, I have been putting cinnamon in almost everything spicy that I make. Just a hint. In chili, in soups, etc. It adds an interesting dimension.

In any event, the shrimp were fiery hot. Quick sautéed. And placed over linguini that had been tossed with a little olive oil and cilantro.

The cactus pear sauce with the pomegranate seeds was drizzled on top.

So, Linguini with Cayenne Shrimp in Cactus Pear Sauce for . I guess since Kalyn is doing a special holiday WHB series, this doesn't really so much fit into that concept, but it was fun to make, and more than a little bit festive to look at!

You got a blast of the spicy with the shrimp, and a soothing taste of the sweet with the sauce.

Altogether a deliciously balanced flavor. And a beautiful presentation.

Worth suffering for any day!

Print Recipe

Linguini with Cayenne Shrimp in Cactus Pear Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 6

6 cactus pears, cut in half, flesh scooped out
1-2 limes, juiced
2-3 tbsp sweetener (sugar, agava nectar)
1 pomegranate, seeds removed
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
3 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper
2-3 tsp cumin
good pinch of cinnamon, to taste
1-2 tsp salt
olive oil
1 ½ pounds dried linguini pasta

Place about 2/3 of the cactus fruit flesh in a small pot with the lime juice and sweetener. Bring to a rapid boil, reduce heat somewhat, and reduce the mixture to about ½ of its volume, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool. Add remaining cactus flesh. Puree mixture. Strain pureed mixture back into cleaned pot, discarding cactus seeds. Add the pomegranate seeds to the mixture, and reheat over low heat, without boiling.

In a small bowl, mix the cayenne pepper, cumin, cinnamon and salt well. Toss the shrimp with olive oil, and then with the spice mixture.

Heat a large pot of water. When it boils, add some salt, and cook the linguini per package directions until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a large sauté skillet till very hot. Add olive oil. Quickly sauté the shrimp over high heat, tossing frequently, until they are just cooked through and no longer pink. Remove from heat, and keep warm.

When pasta is al dente, drain well. Toss pasta with some olive oil and chopped cilantro.

Place some herbed pasta in warmed pasta bowls, place several shrimp on top of each bowl, and spoon some of the hot cactus sauce over the top. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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