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.
Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill
de Hongos y Nopales (Mushroom-Cactus Soup with Roasted Tomatillos)
Chef Aaron Sanchez of Paladar
de Nopales y Camarones (Salad of Cactus and Shrimp)
Chef Roxanne Klein and Chef Charlie Trotter
Pear and Pomegranate Smoothie
Chef Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon
High Lemon Meringue Pie with Cactus Pear Glaze