Your first culinary encounter with prickly pear cactus pads (known as nopal or nopalitos in Spanish) could go a lot of different ways. For some people, it’s love at first taste. For others, their odd texture and sliminess can quickly be off-putting. Packed with nutrition and healing properties, they’re a great source of nutrition and when prepared well, can really be delicious.
Cactus pads are a big part of Mexican cuisine where they’re cleaned and pickled or blanched and cooked. I love quesadillas stuffed with spicy pickled nopalitos, and they also go great in breakfast tacos (many taquerías offer them on the menu).
One of my favorite ways to eat them is in a salad, maybe because it was the first way I prepared them myself. They’re fantatsic when cut into cubes or strips and tossed with a pico-like mix of tomato, onion, and chile, as well as lime juice and crumbled queso fresco or Cojita. The one pictured is served with purple cabbage and grilled shirmp at Zandunga on East 11th Street here in Austin. Fonda San Miguel serves a great one on their Sunday brunch.
There are lots of ways to prepare nopalitos at home. They’re often sold pre-cleaned at Latino markets, but I remember buying them whole (and spiny) and carefully shaving the needles away myself the first time I used them. If you slide your knife carefully along the flat sides of the pads, shaving in the direction of the spines, they come away pretty easily. I’ve also heard of burning them off.
Many times, cleaned prickly pear pads are blanched before cooking. Carefully slice the outer edges of the cooked pads away, and then chop or slice as desired. There’s lots of slime involved. I’ve also just sauteed and lightly steamed them before scrambling them with eggs. They can also be grilled (in fact they’re an essential part of a Mexican mixed grill dish) or battered and fried. I’ve even heard of nopal ice cream. Mmm.
Cactus is packed with vitamins A, B, and C, as well as iron and fiber. The slimy stuff is very beneficial to the body, especially the skin and digestive system. It is also anti-inflammatory and thought to be useful in the treatment of diabetes and management of obesity or weight loss.
And that’s just the succulent pads. Prickly pear cactus also produces delicious fruits high in antioxidants and flavinoids, called tuna. They are typically deep pink or purple and can be eaten fresh and whole or juiced. You can find prickly pear margaritas on some Austin drink menus, like Vivo on Manor Road
Best of all for us Central Texans, prickly pear is abundant. You can find (and grow) it just about anywhere, and it will proliferate without tedious tending. My teacher Nicole Telkes of Wildflower Herb School cites it as being the most underutilized food source we have. Let’s put it to good (and responsible, sustainable) use!