This blog post could save your life. It really could! Well, potentially. I mean, you COULD someday find yourself stranded in an American desert, hungry, thirsty, with no survival tools aside from a lighter, some heavy gloves and a machete. And the particular desert you find yourself stranded in COULD have an abundance of prickly pear cacti. And it COULD be prickly pear season when said stranding occurs. Not that you should wait until you’re in this theoretical life and death situation to try prickly pear, but if that DID happen, you would thank me for all this great information.
Prickly pears are surprisingly beneficial plants. Beneath all their needles and whiskers, once you peel away their thick exterior, you’ll find a hearty vegetable loaded with fiber and a sweet fruit with a delicate, refreshing flavor. We’re right at the start of the prickly pear season (it extends into late fall) so you’ve got plenty of time to discover the best ways to get cactus into your diet.
What Is It?!?
The prickly pear cactus, or Opuntia, exists in several varieties with widely different characteristics. Some varieties can grow up to 7 feet tall while others top out under 12 inches. Their flowers can range in color from yellow to purple. Some types have large, protruding spines (cultivated prickly pears are generally spine-free) while others don’t. But they all share paddle-like flat pads, fruits (also called tuna), and glochids, nasty little clusters of tiny spines, which are a huge pain (in more ways than one) if you happen to get them in your skin.
Prickly pear cacti are native to the Americas. They thrive in the arid climates of the southwest US and Mexico but have been successfully cultivated in other parts of the world. In Mexico in particular, these cacti thrive, and young prickly pear plants are a food staple.
The flower, the fruit and the pads (nopales) of the prickly pear are all edible. I couldn’t dig up much info about the taste of the flowers aside from a few mentions of adding them to salads or steeping them in herbal tea. Meh. All the excitement and danger lie with the fruit and pads.
How to Select Prickly Pears
Pads: Only the young plants are good for eating so look for firm pads with a healthy, bright green color. Generally if you’re getting these from a market, the spines and glochids will already have been removed but I still recommend picking them up through your produce bag as opposed to grabbing them bare-handed. If you’re foraging them from the wild, wear heavy gloves. This is a cactus, after all.
Fruit: In Mexico, the white-skinned fruit, or tuna, are more desirable but those with red or purple skin tend to be sweeter. The brighter, the better in terms of ripeness but the deep, rich fruit are good for jellies and syrups. Look for fruits that are firm to the (gloved) touch and have a little give when you press on them. Again, err on the side of caution and avoid handling with bare hands. They’ll keep for about a week. Don’t refrigerate for more than 2 or 3 days.
How to Prepare Prickly Pears
Put on your bright yellow kitchen gloves and peel those pads thoroughly! Cut out any bruises and wash well under a cool tap. Then, and only then, are you ok to handle these with bare hands. Once clean and peeled, carefully slice up pads to prepare for cooking.
Same goes for the fruit. Keep the gloves on, dump them into a colander or mesh strainer and wash them thoroughly. Swirl the colander under the tap to help loosen and rinse away the glochids (if this doesn’t work, scrub them with a hard-bristled brush or, if you’re outside, try scraping them against a rough rock). Once the whiskers are gone, peel away the outer skin to expose the softer inner fruit, but don’t peel so deep that you reach the seeds.
(You can burn the glochids off the fruit by using a lighter or roasting over an open flame. Just make sure to cool the fruit before biting into it.)
There are lots of options for what to do with the fruit. Prickly pear jelly is sweet and tangy and is a great accompaniment to cheeses. It makes a sweet topping for roasted yam, can be spread onto savory breads, or can even be mixed into plain ice cream. Chef Tess has a fantastic tutorial with pictures to teach you every step from cactus to can. The juice or syrup can be mixed into smoothies or juices but you know you’d rather throw in some tequila and salt for a prickly pear margarita . Got a sweet tooth? Make some cactus candy, my friend.
The fruit can also be eaten raw. Some liken the taste to watermelon with “something extra.” Yes, it’s that vague and difficult to describe. Warning – the seeds are tough little things. They can be swallowed whole so you grow a little cactus in your tummy (kidding!), strained out (especially good for if you’re making juices or jellies) or spit out delicately. The part that tastes best is the soft section surrounding the seeds, so while you can cut that part out, you’d be sacrificing tasty goodness.
Raw pads are edible but cooking will soften them up. You can grill, roast, steam, or boil them with ease. The taste might remind you of green beans, bell peppers or asparagus. Boiled nopales can sometimes be a bit slimy (some also say that in Mexico they’re occasionally boiled with a copper coin, or viente, to cut the sourness, too) but the addition of a hunk of bread during the boiling process seems to help. I found a delicious sounding cactus and bean recipe, cactus tacos and a corn and cactus salad.
(If you’d rather not risk the glochids or deal with boiled slime, you can pick up prepared nopales in the Mexican food section of most grocery stores. This pollo con nopales recipe calls for only four ingredients and is ready in half an hour.)
But Really, Why Bother?
Prickly pear pads and fruits are low calorie, super low fat, and high in vitamin C, fiber, magnesium, potassium and calcium. The juice is rich in antioxidants and boasts strong anti-inflammatory effects. It’s also supposed to cure hangovers and lessen stomach ailments. But lots of people are adding prickly pear into their diet because it’s believed that it can help reduce blood sugar and fight bad cholesterol. The jury is still out on those but a few studies have shown benefit: one showed consumption of prickly pear correlated with a decrease in blood sugar for those with type 2 diabetes and a 2007 study noted decreases of LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases in HDL (good) cholesterol.
Have you tried eating or cooking with prickly pear? What on earth possessed you to do it and what did you think?