The resplendent winter coloration of Ranta Rita Opuntia (O. gosseliniana var. santa-rita)
sold in the nursery trade as an ornamental
Photo from fineartamerica.com
Researchers tell us that the prickly pear cactus was one of the earliest food crops, with Mesoamericans cultivating Opuntia ficus-indica more than 9,000 years ago. Today in South Africa, the Maghreb, Sicily, and South, Central, and North America the cactus is being grown as a food stuff, as cattle feed, and for the intensely colored, flavorful fruit, known in Mexico as tuna. The Mexican word for the prickly pear cactus, nopales, is based on the ancient Nahuatl nohpalli.
Prickly pear cactus are farmed around the world
Photo by renewableenergyworld.com
Nopales are strips or cubes cut from the pads of prickly pear cactus; 114 different species grow in Mexico. They are sold as spineless, peeled pads in Hispanic markets, and can be used raw or blanched (too much cooking and they get mucilaginous, like slimy okra). Bottled or canned versions packed in brine are available in Hispanic markets and some groceries. These should be rinsed in warm and then cold water, and drained before use.
Nopales, ready to blanch, at the mercado
Photo from gourmetsleuth.com
For fresh nopales, obtain tender young pads about 4 inches long and ⅛ inch thick. Larger ones will be tough and have a papery skin that must be removed before using. Remove all of the small spines on the pads with the blade of a knife. It is easiest to hold the pads with folded-over newspaper or tongs to prevent getting stuck by the thorns while processing. Cook briefly in boiling, salted water until just starting to get tender but not slimy (see cooking method, below). To prepare the fruit, lay a prickly pear on a cutting board and cut almost in half lengthwise. Using a knife with a flexible blade, “filet” the flesh from the skin as you rotate the blade around the interior surface of the skin, much like you would a kiwi fruit.
Prickly pear fruit, or tuna
Photo from westernfarmpress.com
Photo from edibleplantproject.org
You can easily grow prickly pear cactus in your yard, and many ranchers in Texas consider the plant an invasive pest, but they provide a valuable habitat for many critters (including snakes, so use caution when harvesting). In times of extreme drought, ranchers burn the thorns off with propane torches as graze for their livestock. To grow your own, they require only good drainage and adequate sun. Nurseries sell desirable spineless and ornamental varieties, and varieties will soon hit the market that have been bred for larger, sweeter fruit. To grow the common local species you can just cut off a pad from a plant, let the cut surface scab over for a few days, and insert it into the ground. It will grow with a vengeance.
Different types of Opuntia fruit
Photo from modernfarmer.com
Typical ripe fruit interior
Photo from edibleplantproject.org
The flesh of the pads is used in salads, in pico de gallo and salsas, with scrambled eggs, in tacos, with meats, and in other dishes. The fruit has a texture similar to watermelon, kiwi, or dragonfruit, and the sweet, tart flesh can be used in a similar fashion, or juiced and added to drinks (local soda company Maine Root makes a prickly pear fruit soda called “Pink Drink”). Prickly pear fruit also makes a spectacular sorbet. Health freaks will appreciate very high levels of Vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, and studies suggest nopales could help with diabetes and hangovers.
Huevos Revueltos con Nopales · Scrambled Eggs with Cactus Strips
The Northern states of Mexico are especially fond of nopales. The blanched or grilled pads are fantastic mixed with scrambled eggs, and then eaten as a breakfast platter, with beans, chile-dusted and browned diced potato, and tortillas, or you can just place the filling inside a hot flour tortilla for a classic Austex breakfast taco.
1 Tablespoon lard, bacon fat, duck or chicken fat, or butter
1 large or 2 small scallions, trimmed and sliced
1 large serrano chile, stemmed and julienned (seeds and ribs removed for less heat)
⅔ cup prepared nopales (see preparation method, below)
2 large eggs, scrambled
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 Tablespoons grated Chihuahua or Monterey jack cheese, for garnish
Salsa of your choice, as a topping
In a seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the lard. When shimmering, add the scallion and chile and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the nopales and sauté 2 minutes. Add the eggs, salt, and pepper, and using a heat resistant rubber spatula, scrape the eggs from the outside-in, just until the eggs are fluffy and set, but still moist. Place on a plate and garnish with the grated cheese, and top with your favorite salsa.
Ensalada de Nopales · Cactus Paddle Salad
Nopales make an excellent salad ingredient, and fresh shrimp, poached lightly in a chile-garlic broth, are excellent added to this salad.
1 ¼ pounds of blanched nopal strips
3 plum tomatoes, stemmed and diced
½ cup diced red onion
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 to 3 serrano chiles, stemmed and finely minced (seeds and ribs can be removed for less heat)
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
¼ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped
1 ½ Tablespoons lime juice
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 avocado, pitted and diced, for garnish
½ cup grated cotija or romano cheese, for garnish
Totopos (tostadas), for service
In a large mixing bowl combine the cactus strips, tomato, onion, garlic, chiles, oregano, cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and mix well. Taste for seasonings for salt and pepper and add to taste. Evenly divide the salad among 4 salad bowls, garnish with diced avocado and grated cheese, and serve immediately with fresh totopos.
To prepare nopales: You can buy them brined in jars (which need to be thoroughly rinsed), but they are much better fresh. Look for prepped (thorns removed), firm paddles in the produce section of gourmet, specialty, or Hispanic markets. If you harvest and prepare them yourself, using tongs or gloves, take a paring knife and excise each group of thorns by slicing just under the surface. When both sides are cleaned of thorns, remove the outside edge, and cut into ¼ inch strips.
To blanch nopales:
1 ½ Tablespoons salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 ¼ pounds of nopal strips
In 4 quarts of boiling water over high heat, add the salt, baking soda, and garlic, stir well, and then add the cactus strips. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and cook until just starting to get tender, but not limp (about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on freshness). Pour into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process and rinse off any slime. Drain well and reserve.
Alternatively, prepare the pads as before and grill both sides over a burner or coals until the pad starts charring, turning yellowish, and starts to get tender. Cooked this way, they are called nopales asados. In case you weren’t paying attention and got pierced with tiny thorns, take a piece of duct tape and lightly drag it across the skin, or put a dab of Elmer’s Glue on the thorns. When the glue dries, peel it and the thorns from your skin.
Mick Vann ©