E214: Edible Cactus

Chile Chews inspired me to pick up cactus at the Farmer’s Market Sunday. There were no prickly pears like her blog describes. If you haven’t read her several posts about this brightly colored cactus fruit, go check it out. I’ll wait.

Did you notice my comment? Yes indeed, I lived 12 years in the Arizona desert. Chile is in Tuscan and I used to live in Phoenix. Isn't it strange I never tried this?

My lemon farmer had cactus leaves which were already cleaned with the stickers removed. She is Mexican, so I suspect this is a more traditional food for her. I decided to google about for alternatives to the sweet uses of the fruit that Chile described. So I found that I could simply eat the leaves raw. Yum. I found more fun facts to know and tell at this site.

Nopales. In Mexico, nopales, the edible stems (or pads) of the prickly pear cactus, probably make up most of the cactus products consumed. They are thick, green, and fleshy, and, when used in stews or salads, they have a flavor and texture vaguely similar to that of green beans. These prickly pear pads are an important vegetable in the Mexican diet, and, in some regions, they even serve as a dietary staple during certain seasons. [. . .]

Nopales, with their clean, docile flavor combine well with many other fruits and vegetables.

I just love that descriptive phrase ‘clean, docile flavor’ as I shun the taste of really sweet, sugary fruits.

Tunas and Pitayas. All cacti produce fruits, and, again, the genus Opuntia, or the prickly pears, produce the main portion of cactus fruits that appear on the Mexican edible fruit market. Prickly pear fruits, known as “tunas,” vary in size from small, guava- (guayaba-) or plum-sized fruits to larger kiwi-sized fruits. They have a thick, leathery peel dotted with areolas (colored rings, generally at the base of spines in cacti) loaded with irritating glochids. .

I won’t go into this as Chile covered it. But, this summary paragraph made me consider incorporating cactus as a native food appropriate for a regular part of my eating in a healthy, local and frugal way. Maybe I can grow some myself as the prickly pear does thrive in this coastal environment.

A novelty to foreign visitors, the cactus is as common on the Mexican plate as potatoes or rice in many other parts of the world. The nopal is a versatile and healthy vegetable both cooked and green. Cactus fruits, or tunas and pitayas, are great sweet desserts and snacks for those hot Mexican desert afternoons in the shade.

Desert plants are amazing creations evolved in design to withstand the harshness of the environment. The spines are protection and some shade, the lack of leaves means less water loss through transpiration. The smooth waxy surface helps protect the plant and provide better storage capabilities. Conserving and storing water while being armored with sharp spines is a kind of model. Right?

Once I got past the gross stickiness, like okra, I found the meat tasty. I like the tartness. I actually experimented with putting a honey with rice vinegar & balsamic vinegar marinade on it. This is a delicious sauce made by the beekeepers at my Farmer’s Market. This experiment went so well I have eaten a salad with cactus every day. Who knew?

Top image from San Diego Balboa Park Desert Gardens


Rosa said...

That's so awesome! I've never had raw nopalito.

I just dropped by to let you know I've been thinking about you today.

katecontinued said...

Thank you, Rosa. Hug those little ones close.

Chile said...

I was just reading more about the nopales as part of the Mexican diet in the book I mentioned in the comments: "The Prickly Pear Cookbook." My CSA has given us cleaned pads a few times but I didn't take to it like you did. I'll give it another try raw, though, as I prepared it grilled.

Another cookbook had an interesting recipe using prickly pear syrup to make "rosy onion jam" - sounds nice and savory with a sweet touch.

katecontinued said...

I think that I took to this because of texture. I liked the solidness without being too difficult to chew. I wear partials and sometimes raw vegetables are work, are uncomfortable to eat. For instance, carrots are a real pain - a real pain. It seemed like my salads had real substance without too much struggle or overbearing flavors.

I also used the nopales in an omelet - again with the solidness.This is a real plus for making dollar stretching meals.