I have years of experience growing my own food in my garden, but I also enjoy foraging for food out in the wild.
What Is Edible Prickly Pear and Where Do You Find It?
Prickly pear is a type of cactus that is found in abundance in several western and southern states in the United States. In summer it bears sweet edible fruits, called tunas or pears, that can be harvested and eaten raw—or canned as preserves or jam. The juice also has a number of healing properties, similar to the aloe vera plant.
Usually ready in early spring, the pads or leaves are not only edible but are delicious and high in fiber and vitamins. Called nopales in Spanish, they are often found in the produce section of supermarkets throughout the southwestern U.S. In traditional Mexican cooking they are used to prepare the dish nopalitos.
Store-bought prickly pear pads usually come from farm-raised, spineless varieties. The wild prickly pear pads or leaves are just as edible; however, you'll have to beware of tiny thorns and thoroughly remove them before cooking.
In a survival situation, where you may have to forage for things to supplement your supply of staple goods, prickly pear pads are an easily gathered food that can be cooked in a variety of ways.
As a low-water use or xeriscape plant, prickly pear cactus is increasingly being used in landscaping and it produces beautiful flowers in late spring. Prickly pear cactus thrives in temperate climates and when grown or wild-harvested can provide some suburban preppers with yet another emergency food source. Here is one of my favorite ways of preparing prickly pear leaves or pads.
Step 1: Forage (Beware of Thorns!)
Once you have located a large bunch of cactus, grab a metal pan, a pair of leather gloves, along with a pair of tongs or long-handled pliers. Locate the new green pads that are shorter than four inches. They will be dark green in color and wile appearing thorn-less will still have some very fine thorns that can be quite painful. Using your tongs, grab the pads from above and twist them off of the plant or grab and slice off with a sharp knife. Be careful of the surrounding mature pads with large thorns! Young shoots should come off quite easily with a twist, also letting you know that they'll be tender to eat.
Step 2: Clean the Cactus Pads Carefully
If you have a gas stove you may want to use your tongs to hold the pads over a high gas flame for a second or two and burn off the larger thorns that could otherwise injure you when cleaning the pads. Next, using a knife and cutting board, scrape the small leaves off of the cactus pads. Don't touch the uncleaned pad with your bare fingers yet! Using a paring knife, cut the tiny spines around the edges as well and make sure not to leave any bumps. When cleaned the cactus pads should look like the one in the second photo below. This is important, since tiny thorns left behind can be painful if eaten. Wash thoroughly, and only after all the spines are gone can you pick it up with bare hands.
Step 3: Slice and Cook
You may cut the cactus pad into small strips or even tiny cubes and stir fry with onion and peppers, as seen below. Cook until they become soft and slightly browned and serve on their own or with scrambled eggs in a grilled tortilla, as seen below.
Other Ways to Cook Prickly Pear Cactus
Another way to cook prickly pear leaves or pads is to clean them the same way as above, but instead of slicing and stir frying them, dip the pads in an egg and milk mixture and batter with flour or a flour/cornmeal mixture. You can then fry the battered cactus until golden brown and serve with ranch dressing or chipotle dipping sauce. Yum!
What Does Prickly Pear Cactus Taste Like?
What do cactus pads taste like? It depends on how they are cooked. When cooked with flour and egg batter, they may taste similar to fried okra. Cooked as nopalitos, as seen above, they have a tangy, tart flavor and "bitey" texture that remains moist when cooked, sort of like a grilled bell pepper.
Prickly Pear Pad Nutrition Facts
3 1/2 ounces of prickly pear cactus contain the following: 40 calories, 10 grams carbohydrates, 3.5 grams of fiber, 24% DV of Magnesium, 17% DV of Vitamin C, 8% DV of riboflavin, 8% DV of B6, 6% DV of Calcium, 5% DV of potassium, along with beneficial antioxidants. (DV = Daily recommended value.)
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 21, 2020:
I've never eaten prickly pear. I'd love to taste it. Thanks for sharing the information in this interesting article.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 20, 2020:
In one of my parent's homes, they grew the spineless variety. I enjoyed eating it. I chopped it up along with onion, and when tender, added scrambled eggs into the pan. It made a tasty breakfast!
Ivana Divac from Serbia on August 20, 2020:
Well-written article with useful instruction and tips. Thank you for sharing!