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Prickly pear cactus has been a staple of the Mexican and Central American diet for thousands of years. In parts of the U.S. it has been gaining popularity as an exotic, gourmet and healthy addition to one's diet. The prickly pear plant has two different edible sections: the pad of the cactus (nopal), which can be treated like a vegetable, and the pear (tuna), which can be treated like a fruit. They grow wild throughout the American southwest, down to South America and up to Canada. The ones you may find at a local store or farmers market will surely originate from a commercial nopal farm.
- Nopales (prickly pear pads)
- Prickly pear (the fruit of the cactus)
- Pepper, salt, other spices
Pads or Nopales
- Buy or forage some prickly pear pads. See Warnings. There's a reason it's called the prickly pear cactus.
- Find pads that are bright, green and firm.
- Small, young pads harvested in early spring are thought to be the most succulent, delicate in flavor, and have the fewest spines. The thicker a pad, the older it is; these tend to be stringier and their sap will be thicker, which some people find unpleasant (leave those for other species who use them as survival food during lean foraging seasons). The tender pads are sometimes sold as "baby nopales".
- If you're harvesting them yourself, wear extremely heavy gloves or use tongs. Snap the pads off of the plant or cut at the stem. Cutting at the stem will reduce stress on the pad, and will allow the cactus to recover more quickly than it would if you snapped or tore the pad away. This will help keep your cactus plant healthy for future harvests.
- Remove the spines from the pad by use of a vegetable peeler or a paring knife. Don't take off the gloves until the pads are completely rinsed and the peeled remnants are cleared. The pads not only have large spines, but there are also tiny, invisible and far more irritating spines called glochids that are extremely difficult to remove from the skin. The spines and glochids can also be removed from the prickly pear pads by burning them off with a small torch or by placing the pad on a gas burner and turning it with tongs. See Warnings.
- Run the pad under cool water. Peel or cut off any discolorations or bruises on the pad.
- Slice or cut the pads (wipe the knife blade after each slice - there can be small spines sticking to it), or leave them whole, depending on what you will be using the nopales for.
- Cook the nopales. They can be either boiled or grilled, as well as mixed with other ingredients to make unique, satisfying and healthy dishes.
- If you boil the nopales, you may sometimes have to drain and re-boil them once or twice, depending on how thick the sap is. The thicker the pad, the thicker the sap.
- Boiling them with a copper coin (an old Mexican "veinte") is a common remedy to thin the sap and make it more palatable to unaccustomed diners.
- The boiled nopales are then drained, washed off with cold water and served as a salad with finely diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro and jalapeños and seasoned with vinegar, salt and lime juice.
- If you grill the nopales, you might want to coat generously with pepper, salt, and other spices. They're ready when they're tender and slightly browned.
- Grilled nopalitos strips can be seasoned with fresh lime juice and a little olive oil. You can also add grilled portobello mushrooms to the mix.
- Try stirring the cooked nopales into soup, mixing them into a salad or omelet, pickling them, or eating them alone.
- A popular and traditional Mexican dish is "nopalitos en salsa verde", where the nopales are cut in strips and boiled in water (see above), and then re-cooked in the traditional sauce made of tomatillos (which are sometimes mistaken for green tomatoes, but are actually a completely different fruit that grow in a papery husk), onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapeño chiles (puree the sauce ingredients in a blender and then bring to a boil and simmer). This is usually eaten in a soft tortilla as a taco or with chips.
- Buy or harvest some prickly pears.
- The pears with the reddish-orange or purple skin and deep purple interiors are considered to be the sweetest, but the white-skinned varieties are more popular in Mexico.
- Store-bought prickly pears are usually spine-free and sometimes can be handled with your bare hands. Unprocessed pears still have glochids that will drive you crazy if you get some on your skin. Just to be sure, always use tongs or at least a plastic bag as a glove.
- If you're foraging for prickly pears, remember that while all pears are edible, only a few will actually be ripe and taste good.
- Remove the spines.
- Place the pear in a container of cold water. Doing this washes some spines away, but not all of them.
- Skin the pears.
- Pick up the end of the pear with a few paper towels folded together, cradling the pear within the paper towels and not allowing the surface of the pear to touch your skin.
- Slice off the thicker skin at both ends of the prickly pear (the bottom and the top). It takes a little practice to know how much to slice off. Generally, you want to take off the skin without getting at the seed-filled center.
- Cut lengthwise along the pear's top-bottom centerline just through the skin. Using that slit, and being careful about the spines, use the knife to lever the skin and peel it off of the rest of the pear.
- Cut the pear into slices, or stick onto a fork or skewer and serve.
- The flesh of the prickly pear can be used to make jam, jelly, sorbet, and "cactus candy."
- The seeds can be consumed with the fruit (but be careful not to bite into them, as they're quite hard) or spit out.
- Some people eat the seeds in soup or dry them to be ground into flour.
- The cooked pads have a flavor comparable to green beans. They also have a texture reminiscent of okra, which some people find unpleasant, and others find enticing. This quality is exaggerated if the nopales are overcooked.
- You can usually buy pads 20 cm long (classified as a small pad) or a pear 10 cm long (classified as medium). Anything longer proves difficult to prepare.
- To store nopales in the refrigerator, make sure they are fresh and unwrinkled. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap. Nopales can be stored for up to two weeks.
- Prickly pears are eaten not only in the United States and Mexico, but also in the Mediterranean and in European countries. In Italy, the fruit is often presented in a bowl of cold water and in Malta, it is customary to chill the fruit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator before serving.
- The flavor of prickly pears has been compared to kiwi, but not as acidic.
- In some cases the glochids can be removed most easily by rubbing against a piece of heavy cloth (such as an old serape) that's used for no other purpose. And this article indicates that Native Americans rubbed "beavertail" pads in the sand to remove the glochids, but rather than "sand" it was more likely the hard-packed sandy dirt of the American Southwest.
- Purchase your first pads. Don't harvest them yourself. Then you will know what to look for.
- If you get the fine spines stuck in your skin, don't bother with tweezers. Instead put a thin layer of Elmer's glue over the spines. Let the glue dry until there is a solid "skin" on your hand, then peel it off. The spines will peel off painlessly with the glue. (This also works for removing splinters.) The glochids actually are barbed and will work into your skin if you are not careful. If you don't have Elmer's glue handy, and the glochids become very annoying, duct tape or strong tack masking tape can remove them.
- If you work with cacti regularly, you may well find the glochids are only a minor annoyance, and that the itchiness is only intermittently noticeable. However, the glochids of some of the Opuntia are larger than the spines of some of the other species. The glochids of the Opuntia Engelmanii v. Texensis in particular can be very, very painful, as can the spines. Gloves are still recommended, however, if you need to handle sensitive areas of the body (as when urinating) or if it is likely you will be caressing someone who is not also inured to the spines.
- To learn more about the nutritional benefits and value of prickly pear cactus, look into the External Links below.
- If grilling on an open fire the spines will also burn off. This can also be used to feed livestock on a short term basis.
- Be very careful when removing the spines from the plant, or buy pads or pears that are already de-spined.
- If harvesting your own plants, always wear hand protection.
- Some species of prickly pear cactus don't have spines, but all have glochids.
- Unless you wear extremely heavy gloves, it's best to handle the pads with tongs or some other "remote" device.
Sources and Citations
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