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Get a Spine. Eat a Cactus.

By Liz Tarpy

While cactus usually conjures up the image of dusty deserts and spiny thorns meant to keep us away, the fruit and pads of the Prickly Pear cactus are a gift from nature that are at once a vegetable and a fruit.

Prickly Pear cactus pads, nopales in Spanish, hail from Mexico and are chock full of Vitamin C. They can be found in some grocery stores or Latin markets. When purchasing fresh nopales, look for firm pads with a consistent green color (both light or dark green shades are fine). Don’t be intimidated by the spines if they have not been previously removed. These are easily severed with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Scrub the surface of the pad with a brush to get rid of the remaining nodes. Once cleaned, trim the outside of the pad and the side that was attached to the plant. You may notice a sticky, gooey substance much like what okra releases when cut. Simply rinse this off before using nopales in a recipe.

The flavor of nopales is reminiscent of green beans, asparagus, or okra but with a slight tang. Any cooking method works well, but keeping the vegetable slightly firm allows for the flavor to fully burst in the mouth. Classic dishes featuring nopales include scrambled eggs, soups, marinated salads, and tacos. Or they can be stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried for an appetizer. Nopales can even be used in ice cream. Jarred nopales are available in some stores, but the flavor and consistency falls short. They can, however, be used in a pinch.

The fruit of the Prickly Pear cactus, known as tuna, is also edible. The yellow, white, and purple fruits are the most common - the purple being the sweetest. It is easy to tell what color the fruit will become as it is the same color as the flower that precedes it. Sold in some specialty markets and Latin grocery stores, look for fruits with a slight give to the flesh and even coloring. Ripe fruits can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week.

To enjoy the sweet, melon-like flavor, carefully remove the spines with a cloth or small knife. Cut a slit in the skin and peel back. The fruit can be eaten as is, pureed, or boiled down to a syrup for candy or jelly.

Recipes

Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill
Sopa de Hongos y Nopales (Mushroom-Cactus Soup with Roasted Tomatillos)

Chef Aaron Sanchez of Paladar
Ensalada de Nopales y Camarones (Salad of Cactus and Shrimp)

Chef Roxanne Klein and Chef Charlie Trotter
Prickly Pear and Pomegranate Smoothie

Chef Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon
Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie with Cactus Pear Glaze




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