Cactus: A Most Amazing Food
By: J. Marlando
As a boy born in Colorado, I had never heard of eating cactus before. To me cactuses were novelty house plants that my grandmother grew in pots. Sometimes they bloomed but mostly they didn’t and they all had “stickers.” Then years and years later (after I was grown up and married) my wife and I ended up living in Mexico for seven years. Making friends with the locals it was not long until we were invited to eat at their houses and at those get-togethers we’d be served cactus salad or something cooked with cactus. Well, at least every now and then. Soon enough my wife was cooking it especially for breakfast. There nothing like fried or scrambled eggs and cactus to start the day on.
I would later learn that cactus is truly a health food so it’s not only good but good for us. Today it is thought by scientists that cactus might have properties that reduce sugar levels for diabetics. If that unfolds to be true or not (I hope that it does) the fact remains that cactus has a heck of a lot of health benefits.
It is the intent of this article to share all the good news about this amazing food that I know and perhaps to inspire some reader to add it to their diets. With that said, let’s get started.
Nopales as Health Food
Nopales, most commonly called prickly pear cactus, is first of all a fruit and a vegetable—one of the few plants in the world that are both!
The cactus is low on calories but high with fiber and protein containing both vitamins and minerals. This begins the benefits plus they contain no fat!
Eating cactus is known to lower cholesterol; its dietary fiber helps to lower levels of unhealthy cholesterol. At the same time just a 4 ounce nopales provides you with over 200 milligrams of potassium. Because nopales (prickly pear) is low in sodium and high in potassium it can help prevent high blood pressure or help to lower it if you already have it. Some say that it decreases the chances of getting cancer but this may just be because it is a product with lots of fiber?
In addition, one scientific journal reported that the prickly pear’s juice contain a great amount of antioxidant compounds like flavonoids, polyphenos and betalains. Today it is well known that antioxidants decrease your risk of cancer, diabetes and other serious diseases so as I said earlier, prickly pear cactus is not only good but is truly good for us at the same time.
Where to Find Nopales
Nopales, more commonly known as Prickly Pear Cactus, grow wild in nearly all Southwest America—Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of California. We have them covering hillsides in and around Thousand Oaks, where I live. In some places such as Arizona you are supposed to have a permit to pick them from the wild. Best picking times is during the late spring and early fall when the young pads are medium size—any pad bigger than your hand is probably too old for offering full flavor. (If you happen to be a guy who looks like the Incredible Hulk then use your wife’s hand for measuring).
I generally do not pick wild cactuses but go to a Mexican grocery store to buy them.
The major reason for this is not because they are not plentiful in my area but that the cactuses that are purchased are already de-spined and prepared for cooking. Be aware, however. inspect every cactus pad for prickers that have been missed and trim the eyes when you deem necessary. Like any other fruit of vegetable, wash thoroughly before eating.
If you trim yourself, wear gloves and begin by cutting off the ends of the pad. Then carefully slice off the thorns by cutting slightly beneath them Some folks say it is simple but for me it’s a tricky process and so, as I say, I prefer going to the store rather than the dessert to pick fresh cactus. Incidentally, cactus and its pears can be kept in the refrigerator, well wrapped in plastic, for up to seven days without losing their freshness!
As I write this article I am reminded how really great tasting the prickly pears are. I haven’t eaten any or drank any cactus “pear” juice since living in Mexico but I do remember how much I used to love both. (I will absolutely make it a point to collect some cactus pears as the lady in the photo is doing, just as soon as they are in season again).
The prickly pears must be skinned before eating. They are much easier than the pads. Just cut off both ends slice into the pear and peel with your fingers…Just look how rich and beautiful they are on the plate and I promise you they are, indeed, as good as they look. You can eat the whole pear, once peeled, raw seeds and all or, you can deseed if you prefer. You can also make it into a refreshing, sweet drink and Lots of people make candy out of the prickly pears but, as for me, a slice or two on top of ice cream makes a doozey of a dessert.
All this talk of food is making me hungry so let’s talk about recipes next.
Cactus Cooking and Cactus Salads
Remembering that you can eat prickly pear cactus raw, I prefer steaming it over boiling water for five minutes or a little longer because it helps reduce the slime of the cactus. Once steamed, simply slice and serve. My favorite is cactus on the side of fried eggs or scrambled in with the morning breakfast eggs. You can also dice the steamed cactus and put it into your tortillas as seen here.
A great breakfast treat is to chop a couple of cactus pods in with chopped onion and chopped red sweet pepper. I prefer jalapeno as seen herePlace all the chopped or diced onion, cactus and peppers in a frying pan and sauté in a little olive oil or butter. As soon as they are cooked to your taste break three or four eggs over them and stir until the mixture is scrambled and done.
You can serve this delicious breakfast on a plate with a side of bread or tortilla or…serve it wrapped in a warmed tortilla and add a little tasty salsa.
A great dinner side dish is to boil diced or chopped onions, cactus pod and fresh corn in waterStir until water comes to a boil, give it a few seconds more and serve. (You might also want to wait until the very last moment to add your diced cactus if you want it to keep its crunchy texture).
Cactus in salads is great and…very healthy. Again, you can eat it raw but I suggest steaming the pads over boiling water for five minutes or so and then hold under running cold water to cool before cutting. When making salads I actually like to stick the steamed cactus on ice to give it a slight chill. With this in mind, a salad that I really enjoy is very simple: Chopped prickly pear cactus, chopped fresh tomatoes olive oil and a few dashes of vinegar. Stir and serve. (You can’t get easier than that). And yes, salt and pepper to taste.
A really fantastic salad is to chop cactus, little green onions and tomatoes; add red kidney beans and garbanzo beans (drained) from the can—salt and pepper to taste and choose your salad dressing.
Another healthy salad that I like with chopped cactus is to add chopped tomatoes and chopped jalapeno pepper with vinegar and oil.
And finally, another favorite salad of mine is chopped cactus, white or brown onion, green bell pepper and green beans (from a can is easiest). I prefer olive oil and vinegar but any dressing you prefer is just fine.
Incidentally if you marinate the salads without tomatoes overnight in your fridge, you’ll be in for a real salad treat to serve for lunch or dinner the next day.
You will note that I have not added any proportions for cooking with cactus because you will have to experiment and learn what and how much you prefer to eat. However, a general rule of thumb would be.
Any vegetable from a 8 oz. can
½ cup of chopped bell pepper or ½ cup of chopped jalapeno
1 cup of chopped prickly pear cactus
One large chopped tomato
½ cup of onions
This is merely a guide line to feed two to four people a salad. Just remember that I am NOT a chef, I’m just a guy who messes about in the kitchen from time to time. If you become a cactus advocate as I am, you can ask the clerk at the Mexican store how best to make cactus soup or other fun ways of preparing cactus to eat.
As for the pears, I love them peeled and raw but also they make a terrific juice. After peeling, toss a dozen into a blender, and after it has been liquidized, drain off the pulp and seeds and serveSome of my Mexican friends used to mix it with some lime or lemon juice but I really like mine all pure, pear juice in the glass. And, with this in mind, I’ll lift my glass and give a toast of good, healthy eating by adding prickly pear cactus to your diet at least every now and then.
Nopales, prickly pear cactus is really a beautiful fruit/vegetable when in full bloom. Its flowers are bright, delicate and lovely. When the pears turn red, the entire cactus becomes one of Nature’s crowned jewels. And, while it is well known that eating it is both nutritional and healthy, it is yet unknown just how healthy the prickly pear cactus is for us. We do know that it helps to empower the immune system. And, it is easy to cook and works as a side dish taking the place of other vegetables or works well as a mix with steamed or boiled carrots and corn.
For me, cactus really is an amazing food...and you know, it really is!
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