Saturday, April 27, 2013

Native American Cooking: Prickly Pear Cactus Pads (Nopales)

The other day, I noticed a particularly large prickly pear cactus near my favorite hiking trail had grown a bunch of new pads - with plenty of fruit on the way too. Yum!

Today I went back with some metal tongs and a paper grocery bag. Nopales - the Spanish word for this treat - is tricky for obvious reasons, but it's well-worth the trouble.


Prickly pear cacti are in the genus Opuntia. There are several species that grow in Southern California - some native, some not. I know that the ones with the super-tasty green fruits are non-native, and that the native ones have red fruit. Beyond that, I can't tell the difference and don't think it's terribly important. They're all edible. And healthy. And medicinal.

Technically, the pads of the cactus are stems, and the prickles are modified leaves. The pads are covered in tiny, hard to see prickles, which I painfully found out as a kid on a trip to Arizona. It's these tiny prickles that are more of a problem than the big ones you can see.

I went to gather the cactus with tongs and a paper bag that I very carefully selected because I don't want tiny, invisible needles in any of my canvas totes.

The pads that are good to eat are the young ones. After they get old, they grow tough and harder to eat. The fruits aren't ripe yet. When they are ripe, they will be red and they will be easy to twist off the cactus (again, use tongs!).

Fruit - not ripe yet

Young pad - good to eat

The nice thing about harvesting prickly pear pads is that, for each pad you take, the cactus grows two more in its place. It's maybe the only food that responds to supply and demand!

I helped myself to a bunch - which turned out to be about 18 lbs. I didn't want to take more than I could eat. I also did not want to take all of the cactus's new pads, but lucky for the cactus, I couldn't reach many of them even if I wanted to.

Once at home, I put a pad over the flame from my gas stove, still using the tongs. I completely burned off all of the needles - visible and otherwise.

Cactus pad with spikes burned off

The cactus still had little black bumps where the needles used to be. I cut those off.

Already, things were getting slimy. REALLY slimy. My ethnobotany teacher calls nopales "slimy green beans."

(UPDATE: Apparently, I missed an important step. It seems that Mexicans, who commonly eat nopales, boil them in water and then drain them at this point. THEN they use them in their cooking. You can put them in scrambled eggs, burritos, quesadillas, etc.)

I had already cooked a few cups of pinto beans. I planned to eat my nopales together with them. To make them tasty, I began heating some garlic-infused olive oil in a cast iron pan. Then I tossed in a chopped onion.


After the onion had cooked for a few minutes, I added the cactus pad, sliced up. As you can see, there's more onion than cactus. Maybe I should have used two pads instead of one.

Cactus and onions

The cactus, by now, was extremely slimy. The cutting board, the knife, my hands, everything was covered with cactus snot. And it began to gum up the onions and my cast iron pan a bit too. But I think it's supposed to.

Once the onions and the nopales were cooked through, I added some cumin (maybe about a tablespoon), cayenne (1/4 tsp, and that was too much for me), stirred it in, and then tossed the whole mixture in with the beans. Last, I rinsed out the cast iron pan with some water and tossed that water in with the beans too. Add salt, and voila!

It came out OK. It's not the world tastiest food, but I'm a lot more accepting of the flavor because it's so good for lowering blood glucose.

The other medicinal use for this great plant is on sunburns. You can use the inside of the cactus pad like aloe. Just make sure to get the spikes off first. (I highly recommend burning them off, because I hear that if you cut them off and put them in your compost pile, they don't break down as fast as you might like...)

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