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©2010 Shanna Lea (formerly Shanna Ohmes)
The prickly pear cactus has been a staple food for Native American and Spanish traditional cultures of the southwest for centuries. Cactus is a desert plant that contains a sap or gel similar to aloe vera in its leaves or pads, called nopals or nopalitos. Both the Native Americans and Spanish included cactus in their daily diets.
These pads are nutrient dense and the sap helps prevent dehydration. Eating cactus can keep your body cool during the hot summer months. Cactus is an excellent food for diabetics as it lowers blood sugar. It is rich in riboflavin, niacin, vitamins A, B6, K, iron, copper, dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese and protein.
Here are some ways to enjoy cactus:
- Scramble with eggs and stuff into a tortilla with some beans
- Mix with diced avocado, onions, lemon juice and cheese and add to your favorite burrito recipe
- Add to soups or bean dishes
- Add to a stew with steak, hominy, garbanzo beans, celery and onions
- Add to fajitas
- Add to burritos
- Make a cactus salad
- Add to seafood
- Add to omelets
- Add to quiche
- Add to casseroles
- Steam them
- Grill them
Where to Find Cactus
If you live in the southwest or other arid areas where they grow, you can pick your own. They have spines, so use tongs when picking them and place in a paper bag. Choose the young leaves in the spring, when they are tender and juicy. Pick those that are small, firm, and pale-green, with no wrinkles. To prepare the cactus, first scrape off the thorns with a peeler. Be careful not to get the thorns in your hands. Trim the edges off the pad, and then rinse them thoroughly with water. Slice in strips and steam for about 5-10 minutes.
If cactus does not grow near you, or you want to skip the preparation work, they are available in jars or cans in most supermarkets. Look in the Mexican food aisle. In the jar they are called Nopalitos. Pour them into a strainer and rinse well with cold water. You are rinsing away the sap from the cactus. The cactus strips resemble green beans and you can now chop them or leave them as they are and add to your recipes.
1 jar nopalitos
1 large tomato, diced
½ to 1 whole onion, to taste
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
¼ teaspoon oregano
Rinse and drain the nopalitos in a strainer. On a cutting board, dice the cactus strips. Add the diced cactus to a bowl.
Add the tomatoes and cilantro to the cactus and stir.
Add sea salt and lemon juice to taste. (Tip: Canned nopalitos already have added salt.)
Sprinkle oregano over the salad and stir once again.
It is now ready to eat, but tastes even better when allowed to set in the refrigerator for ½ hour. This decreases the strong flavor of the onions and enhances the other flavors.
Serve as a salad or as a veggie dish with your main meal.
1-2 young nopal leaves or pads, cleaned
2 small tomatoes
½ red bell pepper
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup pumpkin seeds, roasted and shelled
Dice all the veggies: cactus, tomatoes, pepper, onions and garlic and steam for 5-10 minutes in a bit of water or broth. Mix in the pumpkin seeds. Stuff the mixture into a tortilla or pita bread with your favorite additions to make a burrito.
More Ways to Enjoy Cactus or Nopalitos
Looking through books on Native American cooking will give you more ideas on enjoying cactus. There are recipes for making Sweet and Sour Nopales, Cactus Condiment, Beaver-Tail Stew, Cactus Preserves, Pickled Cactus and even Prickly Pear Jelly from the cactus fruit.