The nopal cactus has served as a meal base for people in Mexico and Central America for thousands of years. In parts of the US, this food is also gaining popularity as a gourmet, exotic, and healthy option. This cactus has three distinct edible parts: the cactus leaf (the "nopal" itself), which can be used as a vegetable; flower petals, which can be used in salads; and, lastly, its "prickly pear", consumed like a fruit. This cactus grows in virtually all of the American territory, from South America to Canada. Market-marketed versions are usually grown on farms suitable for this purpose.
- Nopales (cactus leaves).
- Pear (the fruit of the cactus).
- Pepper, salt and other seasonings.
Method 1 of 2: Leaves or Nopals
Step 1. Buy or harvest some leaves
See the Notices section. There is a reason why this plant is known as "Pera Espinhosa Cactus".
- Look for the firm, shiny green leaves.
- The small, young leaves, harvested in early spring, tend to be more succulent and delicate in flavor, in addition to having fewer spines. The thicker a leaf is, the older it is. Older leaves tend to be very fibrous and their sap will be thicker, which is not always appreciated by consumers. Leave some leaves on the plant, as many animals use it as a survival food in some dry seasons. The softer leaves are known as "baby nopals".
- If you are going to harvest these plants, use tongs or very resistant gloves. Break up the plant to remove it from the branch and cut off the stem. Cutting the stem reduces the stress on the leaf, allowing the cactus to recover faster than if we pulled or ripped the leaf off the branch. This helps keep your cactus healthy for upcoming harvests.
Step 2. Remove the thorns using a vegetable peeler or a small knife
Do not remove gloves until leaves are completely washed and peeled. These cacti not only contain the large, visible thorns, but smaller, nearly invisible ones that are much more aggressive and difficult to remove. The thorns (large and small) can also be removed by burning the leaf with a small blowtorch or by holding it with pegs over one of the stovetops. See Notices.
Step 3. Wash the leaves under running water
Peel and remove discolored or "bruised" parts of the plant.
Step 4. Slice or cut the plants (clean the knife blade after slicing each piece, as small thorns may remain there)
You can also leave the entire sheet, depending on the intended use of your nopales.
Step 5. Cook the nopales
They can be grilled or boiled, or mixed with other ingredients to form a tasty and healthy dish.
- If you are going to boil the nopales, you may need to dry them and boil them again (another or two more times), depending on the thickness of the sap. The thicker the leaf, the thicker the sap.
- Boiling nopal along with a copper coin (a traditional Mexican "Veinte") is a common method of making the sap a little thinner and more palatable to less-accustomed consumers.
- The nopales are then drained, washed with cold water and served as a salad, accompanied by finely chopped tomatoes, onion, coriander and jalapeños, seasoned in vinegar, salt and lemon juice.
- If you're grilling the nopales, it's a good idea to cover them with plenty of pepper, salt, and other seasonings. They will be ready when they are soft and lightly browned.
- The "grilled nopalitos" can be seasoned with fresh lemon juice and a little olive oil. You can also add portobello mushrooms to the mix.
- Try adding nopales to a soup, salad or omelet, canned or even eating them alone.
- A popular and traditional Mexican dish is "nopalitos en salsa verde", where nopales are cut into strips and boiled in water (see above), and then re-cooked in a traditional tomatillos sauce (a fruit confused with green tomatoes), onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapeno pepper (reduced to a puree in a blender and boiled over a low heat). They are usually eaten with tortillas, tacos or chips.
Method 2 of 2: Prickly Pear (the fruit)
Step 1. Buy or harvest prickly pears
- Pears with a reddish-orange or purple color and a darker purple inside are usually the sweetest. However, white-skinned ones are the most common variety in Mexico.
- Market-bought pears usually come without the thorns and can sometimes be handled without gloves. Unprocessed pears contain small thorns that can do a lot of damage to your hands. Just in case, therefore, always wear gloves and tongs when handling them.
- If you are going to pick these fruits, be aware that, although they are all edible, only a few will actually be ripe and will have a pleasant taste. Choose the brightest ones, in purple, that look healthy and before they wrinkle.
Step 2. Remove the thorns
Place the pears in a plastic colander, five to six at a time, and wash with cold water. Rotate the fruits three or four times, avoiding hurting them. This way you'll eliminate all the pears' fur, so you can work with them without problems
Step 3. Peel them
- After removing the coat, peel the pears, removing the two thicker ends. It takes a little time to get practiced at this. The correct thing is to remove the skin without reaching the center of the fruit.
- Cut the pear vertically, from top to bottom, through the middle of the fruit, at the height of its skin. Using this opening, lift the skin and peel the rest of the fruit.
Step 4. Cut the pear into slices or skewer it with a fork or skewer to serve
- The nopal pear shaver can be used for jams, ice cream, wine, sweets, etc.
- The seeds can be eaten with the fruit (be careful not to bite them as they are quite hard) or spit out.
- Some people consume the seeds in soups or leave them to dry to make flour later.
Step 5. Ready
- The flavor of these prickly pears is compared to kiwi fruit, but a little less acidic.
- If you suffer from these thorns on your skin, do not try to pluck them out. Instead, apply a thin layer of school glue over them. Wait for the glue to dry until there is a solid layer on your hands and then pull it off. The thorns will come out with the glue without causing you pain. (This also works to remove wood splinters). The smaller thorns are like little splinters and will get into your skin if you're not careful. If you don't have glue and the thorns are bothering you, try removing them with silver-tape tape or something.
- Baked leaves (nopales) have a flavor compared to pods. They also resemble the texture of okra (which can be a little disgusting to some and appealing to others). This texture is enhanced when nopales are cooked for a long time.
- You will usually find 20 cm long leaves (considered small) or 10 cm pears (considered medium). Anything bigger than that makes preparation more difficult.
- To store nopales in the refrigerator, they should be fresh and smooth. Store them well on film. Nopals can be stored for up to two weeks.
- To learn more about the nutritional benefits of this cactus, see the external links below.
- Prickly pears are consumed not only in the USA and Mexico, but also in the Mediterranean and European countries. In Italy, the fruit is usually served in a bowl of fresh water. In Malta, it is normal to cool the fruit in the refrigerator for a few hours before consumption.
- When grilling it over an open fire, the thorns will be burned. They can also be used to feed creations for a short period of time.
- After a long time working with cactuses, you can get used to the little thorns and the nuisance caused by them. However, there are larger and smaller thorns depending on the species. Therefore, the use of gloves is always recommended, especially if you are going to have contact with other people or with more sensitive parts of the body.
- At first, buy your cactus leaves instead of harvesting them. That way you'll have a better reference on healthy leaves for the next few times.
- In some cases, smaller thorns can be removed by rubbing a piece of old cloth over the cactus.
- If harvesting leaves, always wear gloves.
- Some species may not have larger spines, but all have smaller ones, and the worst thing is, they are often invisible!
- Unless you're wearing really thick gloves, it's best to work with tongs or other "remote" instruments.
- Remember that cacti can hurt you with thorns.
- Be very careful when removing the thorns from plants or buy plants and fruits that have already been cleaned.