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Five Ways to Cook Cactus

May 1, 2019

The most commonly eaten cactus is the prickly pear or Opuntia. In Mexico, the pads or nopales are called lengua de vaca—“cow's tongue”—and in Sicily, the fruit or tuna is referred to as fico d'India, or “Indian fig.” Both the fruit and the pads can be eaten cooked or raw and are a great source of fiber and antioxidants, but they do require a little prep before getting started.

Nopales have a bright, vegetal flavor, like an amped-up stalk of asparagus. Select paddles that are green and plump. The smaller, thinner young paddles are more tender.

While most pads that you buy in the store will already have their sharp spines removed, you’ll still want to wash the pad, holding it at an angle to slice off any remaining spines and to cut out the eyes where the spines were attached.

Trim off the outer quarter-inch of the pad and the thick base and the nopales are ready to cook.

The tuna fruits are a great addition to any fruit-based dish or salad, with a taste that’s somewhere between watermelon and bubble gum.

To prepare them, slice off both ends and make one vertical cut down the body of the pear. Slip your fingers into the slit and grab the skin. Peel off the thick outer skin and discard. The flesh is filled with tiny seeds, which are completely edible.

Chop and toss with orange slices and mint for a simple fruit salad.

Now that your nopales and tunas are ready to go, here are five ways to cook with them.

Blanched Nopales

Add cleaned nopal paddles, whole or sliced, to cold water in a pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. As the cactus cooks, it turns a darker green and releases a sticky liquid (similar to okra); skim this juice and discard while the nopales simmer until the cactus is al dente, about 10 minutes. Rinse to remove any remaining liquid and pat dry.

To make a simple salad, toss blanched nopales with tomato, onion, cilantro, and ranchero cheese with lime and salt to taste. You can also add the blanched nopales to casseroles or scrambles along with diced chiles to add a vegan, meaty texture to a dish.

Juiced Prickly Pear

To extract the juice of the prickly pear fruit, place peeled prickly pears into a blender or food processor and pulse until liquefied. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher or bowl and discard remaining pulp and seeds. Six to 12 tunas will yield about a cup of juice.

Add the juice to fresh lemonade, add an ounce to your margarita, or simply combine equal parts seltzer water and juice for a refreshing spritz.

Baked Prickly Pear

Swap peaches for prickly pear in a simple cobbler, dice and add to your muffin or cupcake batter, or use the juice to add a complex layer of flavor to your lemon bars.

Nopal Tortillas

Soften 4–5 cactus pads in boiling water with a pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon baking soda for 5 to 10 minutes. Process the pads with a few sprigs of cilantro in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add about 4 ½ cups masa harina to a large mixing bowl and slowly add pureed nopales and warm water in batches, mixing as you go, until the dough is the consistency of soft cookie dough. Mix in 1 teaspoon of salt.

Separate the dough into 16 small balls and refrigerate for 10 minutes to an hour. When ready to cook, flatten each ball between two sheets of wax paper with a rolling pin until they are about ⅛ inch thick. Cook on a skillet or comal over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes per side or until they puff. Enjoy in place of traditional corn or flour tortillas.

Grilled Nopales

Preheat a grill to medium and brush the pads with olive oil and a hearty sprinkle of salt and pepper. Grill them over medium to medium-high heat until golden, about 3 minutes on each side.

Grilled nopales can be cut into strips and added to tacos or left whole and used as a base for tostada toppings like salty cheese, refried beans, or stewed meat.

Felicia Campbell
Felicia Campbell is the author of the award-nominated cookbook and culinary history, “The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway...
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