I have a fairly good-sized prickly pear cactus growing in my yard that arrived there by bird farmers or some other means and it has yielded a few pears over the past two years. Our neighbor’s desert tortoise is particularly fond of the pads and she often snacks on them. The Mexican name for this cactus is nopal or nopales and it is a source of food, nutrition and, possibly, medicines for humans.
Nopales are native to Mexico and spread over the Southwest in general. The root species is the Opuntia cacti. There are actually 114 known species of this cactus family and the leaves of all of them are edible. In Mexico, the cactus pads are popular in many foods dishes, using both raw and cooked pads. In the spring, the cacti produce beautiful, colorful flowers that mature into prickly pears or tunas, a seedy fruit that can be made into jam, jellies and juices or eaten fresh. The taste is described as a blend of watermelon and strawberry, but I haven’t noticed it so much. I tasted the uncooked pad and found a similar taste to watermelon with just a touch of sweetness.
When dealing with this cactus, you need to take care to avoid the many little spines that inspire the name prickly pear. Gloves or tongs are very useful in handling these items. In order to use the pads or the pears in cooking, you need to carefully remove the spines. Here’s a video from Rivenrock Gardens, a company that sells Nopales, on how to clean the pads. Cleaning Pads
The pears are equally as tricky to work with, but there is a quick trick to peeling them and using them without stabbing yourself. Using tongs or forks to handle the pear, you follow the basic directions in this video from The Produce Guy for cutting the pear, just being careful not to touch them with your hands. It helps to wear gloves. If you buy them at the grocery, they are probably already cleaned of the spines so they are safe to handle.
Here’s a tip: If you do get one of the spines in your hand, use white glue to remove it. Simply spread the glue over the sore spot, let it dry and pull it out. It will grab the hair fine spine with it.
At this time, many of the possible health benefits are being researched, but it is believed to be of use in treating type 2 diabetes. It is high in fiber and pectin, which can reduce sugar absorption in the digestive tract. It is also rumored to be good for treating colitis, obesity and high cholesterol. As more research is done, it will be interesting to see if this is an effective food.
Nutrition information for 149 g (about 1 cup)
Calories:22 Fat:0 g Net Carbs:2.0 g Protein:2 g
I have only used Nopal a few times in the past couple of years, but here is a recipe from this site:
Here’s a new recipe that uses the pads:
Nopalitos with Chorizo and Eggs
1 young Nopales Pad, cleaned trimmed, and cut into strips
1/2 cup Pico de Gallo
1 Serrano Pepper, chopped
4 large Eggs
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon Chile Powder
1/2 cup Chorizo sausage
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar Jack Cheese
1/4 cup Queso Fresco
4 Low Carb Tortillas, 7 inch
Cook strips of nopalitos in water with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon oregano. Drain when they are tender.
In a skillet, heat one tablespoon oil, then add the nopalitos for a few minutes. Add the Pico de Gallo, Mexican oregano and Serrano peppers and continue to cook until the onions are almost done. Remove to a bowl.
Add a little olive oil to the pan, then add chorizo sausage and stir fry until it is lightly cooked. Add the vegetables back to the pan and add chile powder.
Beat eggs in a bowl, add a bit of salt and pepper and a little more oregano. Add eggs into the mixture, continuing to stir as they cook. Sprinkle cheddar jack cheese over the top and remove from the heat.
Warm up tortillas over the burner or in the oven. Serve eggs and sprinkle a little Queso Fresco over the top.
Serve with tortillas. Makes 4 servings
Nutrition Info per serving
Calories: 339 Fat: 24.1 g Net Carbs: 6.9 g Protein: 23.3 g
* If you can’t find tortillas, you can eat them with a low carb flat bread or pita bread or without bread. Low Carb tortillas are 3 nc per tortillas, so that would be 3.9 nc for the meat and vegetables.
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All photos taken by R. Averett and copyright Skinny Girl Bistro