Unless you are from Mexico or the American Southwest, you may have thought that cactus, the big paddles with long razor-sharp stickers were just a sign that you are in the desert. I’m talking about prickly pear with the regional name, nopal (singular), nopales (plural), or nopalitos (diminutive), and the scientific name, Opuntia sp. (There are lots of different species.) If that’s the case, you will be surprised to learn that prickly pear with its various parts is popular not only as food but also as drink. The cactus can be eaten raw, but most recipes call for cooking. Cooked prickly pear is said by many to taste like okra. That may be a good or bad thing. Some people eat large quantities of Opuntia because of supposed healing powers for all sorts of illnesses. There is some evidence that eating cactus can lower the blood sugar, but the effect is not strong enough to serve as a treatment for diabetes.
Prickly pear in bloom
After flowering in mid- to late-summer, prickly pear sets on fruits on the edges of the paddles. These fruits are also called tunas and are so highly prized that night-time harvesters will strip them from plants growing in the median of streets of many towns and cities. Peeled and eaten without chewing (the seeds can easily break a tooth), tunas substitute for candy because of their sweetness. They can be mashed into pulp and juice for drinks, cocktails (cactus margaritas are popular in some Border bars), syrup, or even dessert.
The key to success in turning the cactus into something you can eat is to get rid of the spines. Sometimes hungry cattle in dry climates will turn to cactus for food if there is nothing else to eat. The spines can damage bovine intestinal tracts or even blind a cow that gets the spines impaled on a cornea. Those spines can do the same thing to humans. To avoid this, some cooks use a blowtorch to burn off the spines. This approach has the disadvantage of potentially burning the paddles. Others use very sharp knives (along with sturdy gloves to protect hands) to cut off the spines and the thin outer layer of the pad. The easiest way to deal with the problem is to buy prepared nopales in the grocery store.
One of my friends, Jim Hastings, has developed an interest in Southwest native foods and foods prepared from native plants. This has led him to develop a number of his own recipes and to conduct cooking classes on preparing an entire meal from cactus.
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to attend one of Jim’s classes. For that session his menu included Bean Soup with Nopales, Jicama and Nopalito Salad, Nopales and Green Chile Tart and Cheese Cake with Prickly Pear Dessert Topping. The dessert topping can go on cheesecake, as Jim demonstrated, ice cream, pound cake, or whatever you fancy.
The dessert topping requires prickly pear jelly and optional prickly pear syrup. You can order those online from Cheri’s Desert Harvest
In this post, the recipes are Jim’s; the images are mine. If you want to contact Jim Hastings for more information, his internet address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gloved up and ready to attack the nopales and jalapeños
Prickly pear paddles, still with spines
Prepared nopales from the market
Prickly pear fruits or tunas can be peeled and eaten or used for juice
Bean Soup with Nopales
- 2 cups dry pinto beans
- 6 cups water
- 3 strips thick sliced bacon cut crosswise into ½ inch slices
- Additional vegetable oil and butter if needed
- ½ medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 cups nopales, diced
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
Bean soup with nopales
- In a large pot, soak the beans overnight in the water. Set aside.
- In another large pot set over medium heat, render the bacon to release the fat but do not crisp. Remove the bacon from the pot.
- If needed, add oil and butter to the bacon drippings in the cooking pot and heat over medium flame. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Do not allow to burn.
- Add the garlic, and stir for about 30 seconds. Then add the reserved beans and water. Bring to the boil. Then reduce to the simmer and cook until the beans are tender. Add chicken broth and keep warm
- In the meantime, melt oil and butter in a large sauté pan. Add the nopales and sauté until the moisture is completely gone. Be careful not to burn the nopales
- Add the nopales to the beans, stir in chopped cilantro, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
- Serve in bowls with salsa or pico de gallo if desired.
Jicama and Nopalito Salad
- 2½ cups nopalitos cut into 3/8 inch dice
- ½ pound jicama, peeled and cut into 3/8 inch dice
- 2 red jalapeños chopped into fine dice. Remove seeds and ribs for milder flavor
- 1 yellow bell pepper seeded and cut into 3/8 inch dice
- 2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into 3/8 inch dice
- ¼ cup chives finely chopped
- ¼ cup mint leaves finely chopped
- ¼ cup cilantro leaves finely chopped
- raspberry vinaigrette, commercial or homemade
Peppers and scallions
Onions, garlic, and jicama for salad
Jicama nopalito salad
Jicama and nopalito salad with added jalapeños
- Bring to small pots of water to the boil. Add nopalitos to one of the pots, return to the boil, and boil for 30-45 seconds or until the water starts to thicken. Drain the nopalitos and add to the second pot of water, repeating the process. Drain and rinse with cold water. Do not overcook
- In a large bowl, combine the nopalitos, jicama, jalapeños, bell pepper, cucumber, chives, mint, and cilantro.
- Toss with raspberry vinaigrette.
- Serve on fresh greens.
Nopalito and Green Chile Tart
Preparing the puff pastry for the tart
Peppers and scallions
Diced red bell pepper
Spreading the cream cheese mixture on the puff pastry
Baked nopales and green chile tart
Single serving of the nopales and green chile tart
- Thaw puff pastry according to package instructions. There should be two sheets.
- In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil until it is barely shimmering. Add the diced nopales and sauté until olive-green and any slime has evaporated. Remove from the heat and cool.
- Stir together the nopales, green chiles, and garlic.
- Unfold the two sheets of puff pastry in a 17 x 11 1 inch jelly roll or sheet cake pan. Moisten the seam between the two sheets with a little water and press together to sea. Trim dough to fill the pan using any scraps to fill the sides. Score the dough lightly around the edge of the pan, about ¼ inch from the edge of the pan
- Stir the crumbled oregano into the sour cream Then spread the cream cheese mixture evenly over the dough within the score line.
- Spread the nopales, chile, and garlic mixture over the cheese. Then sprinkle with the red peppers
- Bake at 400° F (204 ° C) for 10-12 minutes or until the crust puffs and is a golden brown, Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes. Cut into 2 inch squares and serve.
Cheesecake with Prickly Pear Topping
- 16 ounces sour cream
- 4 ounces prickly pear jelly
- prickly pear syrup (optional)
- 1 cheesecake, homemade or purchased
Prickly pear cactus jelly for the dessert topping
Topping going on the cheesecake
Cheesecake with prickly pear topping and a drizzle of syrup
- Stir together the sour cream and prickly pear jelly until smooth and evenly blended.
- Spread on top of cheesecake
- Drizzle with syrup if desired.