Here in the Southwest, the prickly pear cactus is a common sight in gardens, along desert highways and even in the high country interspersed with juniper and ponderosa pine forests. Indigenous people have depended on it for thousands of years as a source of food.
While for many Americans, the thought of eating cactus isn’t appealing, the growing influence of Mexican culture is changing this attitude. Today you’ll find nopales – the “paddles” of prickly pear cactus – for sale in many supermarkets. In fact, you can buy them already prepared, conveniently prewashed and precut in plastic bags, alongside the lettuce and spinach. Which is great, because not many of us would have the time or the patience to scrape the spines off our vegetables before eating them!
Nopales are nutritious and tasty when eaten raw in salads, or cooked as a vegetable side dish (the flavor is often compared to green beans). The cactus pads are high in vitamins A and C, as well as B complex vitamins and iron. The somewhat gummy, sticky fluid contained in them, while boiled out for most recipes, is extracted and sold as a soluble dietary fiber supplement in health food stores.
Here is a recipe for a very simple Nopales Salad from south-of-the-border cookbook author Karen Hursh Graber. This salad is great in tacos, or as a garnish on tostadas. It’s also a good accompaniment to grilled meat, chicken or fish.
Nopales Salad (Ensalada de Nopalitas)
- 3 cups diced nopales, cooked until tender and rinsed under cold water
- 1/2 cup finely chopped green onion
- 1/2 cup diced radishes
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- juice of 1 fresh lime
- 1/4 teaspoon crumbled, dried oregano leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1-2 serrano chiles, finely chopped (optional)
Place the nopales in a salad bowl with the other vegetables and the cilantro. Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt and pepper, and pour over all. Toss to blend well.