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Ah, prickly pear: It's the perfect time of year to capture a chunk of summer

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Oooh, August. Prickly pear time.

The big rains coincided, in my yard, anyway, with peak prickly pear season. The tropical low provided a couple of unseasonably cool, cloudy mornings ideal for house- and yard-work of all kinds, including the harvest and putting-by of the desert's most profligate fruit.

To tell the truth, it was almost too easy this year: An all-night downpour had even washed the tunas down for me. All I had to do was get out the tongs, plug in the food processor and make a big old pink mess, all of which was pure, unalloyed kitchen fun on a cool day. I used to try to make prickly pear jelly, but it came out as syrup two years out of three for reasons I could never discern, so now I just strain and freeze the juice, getting almost all the satisfaction and none of the despair.

I get an atavistic thrill out of this sort of old-fashioned, housewifey activity.

Nothing makes me feel closer to my grandmothers, both of whom are gone now. They canned and made jelly like madwomen though the summer and fall up in our native Pacific Northwest: Cheap produce was everywhere, and there was no sense at all in letting it go to waste.

Most children's memories involve food, I think. I remember the exact smell of the corner of the garage where Nana would send me to get green beans and peaches for dinner and jelly for breakfast from the rough, shallow shelves Papa had built for her preserves, and the weight and the look of the fruits and vegetables in their various glass jars. (The beans were homely, the peaches glamorous, the jellies brilliant.) Still, it was no pastel, Martha Stewart layout: The garage smelled like lawn mowers and sawdust and old cigarette smoke.

Nana and Papa had moved enthusiastically into town in the early '60s, but had brought some country, Depression-era ways with them, and Vancouver, Wash., was still surrounded by orchards and rich farmland. My other grandparents stayed in the farmhouse where they'd raised their five kids and were gradually engulfed there by the suburbs.

So I'd can some if I could, and I have when I've lived (briefly) in truck-farming country, but in Tucson, about the only thing you can sensibly fool around with is prickly pear. It's free and falling-on-the-ground abundant. The birds can't come close to eating all of it, and the tart juice is delicious, wildly healthful and ridiculously expensive. (Carolyn Niethammer's The Prickly Pear Cookbook is the indispensable text. I'm on my third copy, having given away the first two to friends with diabetes. Prickly pear juice is the hottest thing going in natural healing.)

And there is nothing edible, anywhere, that's more beautiful. Artists and photographers can't resist loaded opuntia: The powdery pale green of the pads and saturated magenta of the plump fruits lined up along their curving, sharp-cut edges is intensely pleasing to the eye, one of nature's happiest unions of form and color.

The alchemy of plants seems so clear in the case of prickly pear. In the process of juicing out a batch of the fruit, that fuchsia-tinged magenta and the ineffable, dusty melon-strawberry fragrance of the fruit come to seem like the concentrated essences, absolute distillations of desert heat and light--which of course, in one sense, they really are. There's some deep truth about the desert there, and that's a very satisfying thing to have splashed around your kitchen.

And splashed it will be, no matter how careful you are. (Fortunately, prickly pear, for all its depth of color, doesn't stain the way berry or grape juice does.) I don't cook the fruit, but just scrub it off before throwing it into the Cuisinart. It is tempting to fill the thing up, which is a serious mistake: As the blade smashes the flesh, the juice rises inexorably and overflows the bowl like something out of a cheap, off-color horror movie.

Once I've got juice and a mass of black seeds, I pour it into a jelly bag on a stand in the sink--you want to localize these operations to the sink whenever possible. From there, it runs out into a bowl, quickly, because I'm not patient enough to let it just drip through the way you're supposed to. Squeezing the bag, I always pick up tiny stickers in my hands--but if you don't get stickers in your fingers, how do you know you've done anything? Then I pour the juice into ice-cube trays and freeze it, making sticky, cloudy, vivid cubes of God's Own Popsicle to use in iced tea and sauces all winter long.

It's like capturing a chunk of summer and keeping it. It's something I like.

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