Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Prickly Pears and Nopales

I lived in Salado, Texas, a tiny town just north of Austin, for a few years when I was in middle school. We had prickly pear cactus growing all over the front and back yard of our home, and I loved seeing the beautiful blossoms in the spring and summer, and the spiny fruit in the fall. Sadly for me, I had absolutely no idea that both the spiny leaves and the magenta fruit were edible, and that the plant played an important part in the cuisine of Mexico and the US Southwest (unfortunately, culinary history was not covered in history class in Texas, but I did learn more about the Alamo that you could possibly imagine). Living in a Mexican neighborhood now, I love going on hunts for the paddles and the fruit, and the delicious syrups and jellies Mexicans make from the prickly pears.

A Brief History

There are a great number of species of prickly pear cactus, all of which are native to the Americas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explains that the cactus was probably first cultivated in Mesoamerica, and was of particular importance to the Aztec. Fossilized seeds and skins of the fruit over 7,000 years old have been found in Mexico. Indeed, the name of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) means, “place where cactus pear grows on stone.” Spanish writers in the early 16th century, including Cortes, noted the deliciousness of the fruit and the gusto with which the locals consumed them. The FAO explains that Columbus probably brought the plant to Spain, where it was likely first cultivated in either Seville or Cadiz. Arab traders spread the plant to the Middle East from Spain, and the cactus then spread to other parts of the world where it took hold, including South Africa, India and Australia.

Factual Nibbles

  • Prickly pear has proven itself to be a particularly noxious invasive species in Australia and Africa. Introduced in the late 18th century in Australia, the plant had invaded millions of acres of land by the 1920s, rendering it useless for agriculture. Here’s the longer story.
  • Other names for prickly pear include Indian fig, mission cactus, Barbary fig and cactus pear. In Spanish, you’ll see the cactus paddles (i.e., leaves) referred to as nopales, and the fruits as tunas
  • Colonche, a sweet Mexican beverage made from prickly pear fruits, is mildly alcoholic and fizzy and I wish fervently that I had some right now. I couldn’t find a recipe, but if you want to try your hand at it, here is a video (in Spanish) of a lady describing how she makes it.
  • A Christmas drink called Miss Blyden was once popular in the Virgin Islands. The St. John’s Historical Society tells us that the beverage was made from a native species of prickly pear fruit steeped in rum and sweetened with sugar. It’s unclear who Miss Blyden was, but she sure seemed liked fun.
  • Prickly pears and nopales are important foods in Mexico – so much so that the prickly pear cactus appears on the Mexican flag
  • Cochineal insects feed on prickly pear paddles. The bugs produce carminic acid, from which the valuable colorant carmine is derived.

Cultivation

The Opuntia genus includes hundreds of species of cactus, many of which have edible fruits and leaves (paddles). Depending on the species, the plant grows tall and upright or low and spreading. Plants can be propagated from seed, or more easily from cuttings. Its lovely flowers range in color from yellow to orange to pink, and even the fruits range in color – some are the characteristic magenta, but if you’re lucky you may also find green, orange and yellow varieties. Both the paddles and the fruit are covered in small spines (they are a cactus, after all) called glochids, which are barbed and can cause extreme skin irritation.

One of the most commonly cultivated species of prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica, is grown for both its fruits and its paddles in arid areas all over the world, including central Mexico, parts of the Mediterranean (especially Sicily), South Africa, the Middle East and parts of East Africa. Edible cactus are so important in some places that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) holds regular symposiums (called “CACTUSNET”) on the utilization of the plant. This article on edible cactus from Modern Farmer explains that the D’Arrigo Brothers Company (aka “Andy Boy”, who you may remember from our broccoli rabe article as the folks behind the popularization of that vegetable in the US) is campaigning to popularize both the fruit and the paddles of the cactus. They’ve got a growing operation in California, and are marketing the fruit as “cactus pears” and cactus paddles as “nopalitos.” In Sicily, the fruits are highly prized. The juiciest specimens, called “bastardoni” appear in the fall.

Seasonality

Young cactus paddles are the most tender (and have the smallest spines) – these appear in markets in the spring. In the US, cactus fruits appear in the mid-summer through fall, although you may find imported fruits in specialty markets year-round.

Environmental Impact

Prickly pear cactus are champs at growing in marginal environments with little water, making them a better agricultural choice than many other fruits and vegetables, especially in drought-prone areas like California. They can also easily wild-harvested in areas where the cactus grows – in the US, you’ll find the cactus everywhere from the Great Lakes to beaches on the East Coast to the Southwest. Just watch out for those spines! Commercially grown cactus may be treated with synthetic fertilizer, especially if they are being grown for their paddles and not their fruit, or with pesticides. If you’re lucky enough to find either the fruits or paddles at your local farmers’ market, talk to the farmer to find out more about his or her growing (or wild harvesting) practices. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)

Characteristics and What to Look for

Both the paddles (nopales) and fruit of the prickly pear are covered in tiny little spines that are certainly not delicious. Some vendors strip the spines off of the paddles and fruit before selling. If you wild harvest you may have to take the spines off yourself (more on that, below). The fruits we most commonly see in North America are a dusky magenta-red (with a magenta interior) but if you’re lucky you may find yellow, green, orange or even white fruits either at the market or in the wild. The paddles are usually harvested young – older paddles are tough and their spines are difficult to remove. Look for bright green paddles that are soft, but not floppy. Both fruit and paddles should be free from mushy or black spots and feel firm when gently squeezed.

Nutrition and Affects on the Body

Prickly pear fruit is high in Vitamin C, fiber and magnesium. It’s also got a bit of calcium and potassium and is high in antioxidants. The fruit has been used as a hangover preventative, and may help lower cholesterol. The nopales are high in calcium, Vitamin C, manganese and magnesium. Traditionally, the pads were heated and used as a treatment for arthritis and other aches and pains.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Prickly pear paddles are used as a vegetable in much of Mexico and the US Southwest. After de-spining, they can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked like a vegetable, made into salsas and tucked into tacos. The paddles release a good deal of mucilaginous sap that is a lot like the slimy juice that okra releases when cooked – if you don’t enjoy that texture, the paddles can be sautéed or boiled to reduce much of the slimy liquid. Here’s a good video tutorial on how to clean and prepare nopales.

The fruits are used in beverages like margaritas, in candies, and in sauces and syrups, which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. The fruits, too, must be handled and prepared in a certain way to avoid getting stuck with the painful spines – here is a good photo tutorial of how to cut and prepare them.

Storage

Prickly pear fruits and paddles will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator if kept dry. Put them in a paper bag and keep in your crisper.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

Prickly pear fruit make amazing jams and jellies, and puree of the fruit freezes quite beautifully. The paddles can be preserved by dehydrating, freezing, pickling and canning – this article explains the how-tos.

Recipe

Nopales, Garlic Scape and New Potato Frittata

Nopales are frequently paired with eggs, so I thought a frittata might be just the ticket to showcase the synergy between the two. Since garlic scapes are in season now, I sliced a few up and tossed them in, but feel free to substitute green onions or even ramps for the scapes. A flurry of chopped cilantro and a few dashes of good hot sauce make this frittata even better.

Ingredients:
4 small new potatoes, scrubbed
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 large cactus paddle (nopal), rinsed, cleaned, and diced (see instructions here)
4 garlic scapes, sliced thin
6 large eggs
2 tablespoons whole milk
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
Kosher salt
Handful of chopped cilantro and hot sauce (for garnish, optional)

Method:
Pre-heat the oven to 375F.

  1. In a small saucepan, cover the new potatoes in water to cover by one inch. Add salt and bring the water and potatoes to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender (this will vary depending on the size of the potatoes – start checking after 10 minutes.) Drain and let cool slightly, and then slice into rounds. Set aside.
  2. In a medium sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on medium-high until hot. Add the cleaned, diced nopales and sauté for 2-3 minutes, or until the paddles’ liquid begins to be released. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the cactus has released all of its juices, and the liquid begins to evaporate, about another 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic scapes and sautee another minute or two. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, cheese and a generous pinch of salt. Stir in the nopales and garlic scape mixture and the potatoes, being careful not to break up the potatoes. 
  4. In a large oven-proof non-stick sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the egg and vegetable mixture and cook, undisturbed, until the edges start to set, 7-8 minutes. Transfer to the oven and continue cooking until the mixture has set completely, another 5-10 minutes (begin checking after 5 minutes). Gently and carefully rap the pan on the counter, then invert the frittata onto a plate. Serve immediately or at room temperature, topped with chopped cilantro and hot sauce, if desired.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)