Raise your hand if you played Powerball this week.
I did. And I won!!! Four dollars!!!! I decided to take it in a lump sum payment. You know, taxes.
Now raise your hand if every time you fly through Chicago O’Hare you make it a point to stop at Frontera’s torta stand? You know I do because it is the best damn airport food anywhere, I beg you to tell me any different.
A couple weeks ago on my way to Philly I enjoyed a mind-blowing bowl of smoky chipotle meatballs on a bed of black beans with tortilla strips, arugula, and cotija cheese sprinkled on top. I also (because you must) ordered an agua fresca. I considered my options. Mango-lime? Tangerine? I even thought about just getting a margarita (what the hell) but then spotted the raspberry-prickly pear and knew. I mean who can resist that color? I finished the whole plastic keg cup before my food was even ready. It was floral, it was pleasantly sour, it was basically a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dank airport corridor.
Are you familiar with prickly pears? They are the magenta, oval fruit of a cactus and can be found in Mexican markets and at most Whole Foods. In Spanish they are called tunas and are sometimes labeled as such.
The first time I ever tasted a prickly pear I was working at Mustard’s Grill in Napa Valley. Occasionally the kitchen staff would take the wait staff on a tour of the gardens that lay just south of the restaurant. The gardens were a popular topic of conversation among diners and it was helpful if the front-of-the-house staff knew a thing or two about what was growing out there. Along one hedgerow grew a line of ancient cactus plants heavy with fruit and when we got to them one of the waitresses asked if they were edible. Cindy (the restaurants owner and chef) jokingly said, “Yes, try one!” And before anyone could stop her, she reached right out grabbed one and bit right in….spines and all. We all starred, wide-eyed, as she yelped in pain. I’m afraid that poor girl was picking hair-like spines from her mouth for days. The rest of us enjoyed the ones unloaded of their skin and thorns in hefty chunks and talked about the mental capacity of that sorry waitress for days.
Needless to say when you buy them in the market they are almost always cleaned of their spines—but don’t go willy-nilly grabbing one just in case. There are several varieties but the ones most commonly found here are juicy and tart with soft, black seeds. They have a slight slime factor which is hardly noticeable in drink form, but if it grosses you out, use a straw.
And lest you forgot… we are in a fierce drink competition to find the 2016 Drink of the Winter, so if you haven’t tried it, make yourself a Mulita then make yourself a tall glass of this agua and see what you think. Also, if you have a suggestion to throw in the ring, let me know!
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