By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
The genus Opuntia is one of the larger groups of cactus. Often called beaver-tailed cactus due to their large pads, Opuntia produces several types of edibles. The beautiful juicy fruits are delicious and are useful in jams and jellies. But can you eat cactus pads? The broad, succulent pads can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways. Don’t let those spines scare you. Cactus pads are delicious and nutritious.
If you have ever been to an ethnic store specializing in Mexican and southwestern cuisine, you may have seen cactus pads. The plants grow especially well in desert type areas and adult plants can produce 20 to 40 pads per year. The locality where the plants grow wild calls the pads nopales, a desert delicacy that has been transported across the states.
There is a specific time of the day and year for harvesting edible cactus pads. Harvesting nopales at the optimum time ensures less acid content and a sweeter vegetable.
Prickly pear cactus is the primary source of nopales. In spite of the pad’s armament, they have been used for food probably as long as humans have been in their native region. Nopales are eaten either raw or cooked. Once cooked, they have a slightly slimy texture much like okra, but the flavor is appealing and adds a lemony note to recipes.
You can often see nopales canned in specialty stores or the Mexican section of the supermarket. You use these like you would any canned vegetable. The cacti are raised commercially in Mexico but you can also harvest your own pads if you live in an area where Opuntia are common. Harvesting edible cactus pads is a bit like raiding a honeybee nest. The opportunity to get stung does exist.
You can harvest the pads at any time of the year. However, knowing when to harvest edible cactus for best flavor will ensure sweeter vegetables. The best time is mid-morning when the acid content is still low.
Since the pad already has a tart flavor, you want to avoid any bitterness that might occur if you harvest later in the day. Mature cactus can be harvested up to 6 times per year. Just remember, as with any plant, ensure that at least 2/3 of the pads remain on the plant to fuel photosynthesis and energy gathering.
The first step when harvesting nopales is to arm yourself. Dress in long sleeves and thick gloves. Tongs are helpful, as is a sharp knife.
Grasp the pad with the tongs and cut it where the section joins to another pad. Remove the pad using the tongs and place it into a bag. A burlap or fabric bag works best, as a plastic bag is no match for the spines.
Once you get the pad home, wash it and using the tongs again, use the knife to scrape off the spines. You can then peel off the skin if you wish and use the vegetable raw in salads or sautéed, boiled or roasted.
You may also choose to use the pads medicinally, much like an aloe plant. The sap in the pad apparently also repels mosquitoes. This amazing cactus has numerous uses, is easy to grow and is a symbol of the American Southwest.
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Read more about Prickly Pear Cactus
The weather is getting warmer here and instead of the same old lettuce, tomato, etc., salad, I decided to make a nutritious Ensalada de nopales. We do not get the freshest nopales around here but, who’s complaining? You can see in the pictures that they look close to their expiration date, with dark spots here and there, but they were still crispy and that is what matters when you choose the nopales. (If they are soft and bendable, do not buy them).
Today I also have the recipes for Nopales Salad and Nopales with Eggs. Nopales with eggs. What?? Am I out of my mind?? Well, that is exactly what I told my husband as a newlywed almost 30 years ago. (Yes, it has been that long but seems like yesterday… believe me!) Anyway. The thought of eating scrambled eggs with nopales for breakfast and in a sandwich didn’t sound too interesting to me back then. But here I am now trying to convince my teenage son that they taste good… plus the added bonus of all the health benefits found in nopales that even Asian countries are cultivating them, while in México they are becoming extinct in some areas.
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Note: Nopales also taste really good grilled and topped with melted cheese. Just make 3-4 small cuts to each nopal after you cleaned the spines brush them with oil and grill them for about 3 minutes on each side.
Place the nopales in a large bowl add the chopped tomato, onion, serrano peppers and cilantro. Mix the ingredients. In a separate bowl mix lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper. Add this to the nopales mixture and stir. Top the salad with crumbled fresh cheese and avocado slices. (Radishes go well with this salad also). Eat with corn tortillas or tostadas.
NOPALES WITH EGGS FOR BREAKFAST
Add the oil to a frying pan over medium heat. Add the chopped green onions and stir-fry for a minute. Add the nopales and cook for 1 – 2 minutes. Add the eggs and cook until tender, stirring as needed. Add salt to taste.
Although cacti fruits may appear vicious on the outside, they are so delicious on the inside. However, before you get to the sweet meaty inner flesh, you will need to do a lot of things to get past the prickly spines.
Any slight mistake can be costly and will leave you nursing injuries. Always take time to prepare your cactus fruit in the right way before serving it. If you are still new to cactus fruits, consider easing them into your diet slowly to avoid body reactions.
Some people have reported experiencing nausea, diarrhoea, and increased stool frequency after consuming the fruit for the first time. But these symptoms disappear after some time.
So, do you love eating cactus fruits? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.