How to Prepare and Eat Prickly Pear Cactus
- Paddle Cactus
- Sabras Cactus Fruit
The Prickly Pear
Cacti are an incredibly fascinating group of succulents. Often thought of as annoying, tough, spiny and menacing they are not automatically thought of as a nutritious food source, but they most certainly are.
With over 1,000 different species of cacti, they range from a few inches in height to over 100 ft tall. For more interesting facts on cacti check out Characteristics of Cacti plants.
I have always had the varieties of cacti that are for indoor use and love them. Intrigued by their shapes, stems, flowers and even their spines.
I find it hard to resist purchasing a new one every so often to add to my collection. My partner on the other hand detests them and puts up with them as long as he has nothing to do with them!
Luckily for him they are not native to Ireland but they are, however native in southern Italy where we will be moving to. In fact there are a number of large prickly pear cacti beside our property which is something I at least look forward to!
Native to the Western hemisphere, this cactus fruit is a common sight in arid or semi-arid regions of the world particularly in Mexico, The Americas, The Mediterranean, Australia and Africa.
The prickly pear cactus is the only member in the Opuntia genus of cacti and there are over 200 different species. They have three striking features.
They are easily identified by their large paddle like shaped leaves, also known as nopales which are in fact flattened stems.
Another feature of prickly pears is their fruit or tunas which vary in color from yellowy-green to deep magenta.
The third and most attractive feature is their flowers which are also edible. They vary in color between yellow, orange, red to mauve.
The fruit varies in size, from a small plum to a large kiwi fruit and both stems and fruit are widely eaten and used in different ways.
More Surprising Edible Plants
Benefits of Prickly Pear Cactus (Pads and Fruit)
- *Helps Lower Cholesterol
- *Type 2 Diabetes
- Cardiovascular System
- *Prevents Hangovers
- Contains Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron and Amino Acids.
- Vitamin A, C
- High in Fiber
- Rich in Carotenoids
- Anti-Inflammatory Properties
- Antiviral Properties
- Rich in Antioxidants
Possible Side Effects
When introducing a new ingredient into our diet, easing into it is advisable. Some side effects associated with prickly pear include nausea, mild diarrhea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency, headaches and a fullness of the stomach.
NB - Do not take prickly pear if pregnant or breast-feeding or if undergoing surgery within the next 2-3 weeks.
If you are taking medication, always seek medical advice when considering adding this food or any unusual ingredient into your diet.
* Research is still being done into these claims.
The Pads or Stems
The flat green stems or pads are eaten like a vegetable. Thick and fleshy they are widely used in Mexico as a staple food in the diet.
When cooked they have a taste comparable to green beans and a texture similar to okra. The pads are often sold whole or cut up in strips or cubes and bagged for convenience.
If you fancy harvesting your own stems from the wild or your backyard, no problem but you need to make sure you follow a few pointers.
Harvesting Prickly Pear Stems
- Wear thick gloves or use a long tongs as the spines are extremely irritating if lodged in the skin.
- Pick young stems that are approximately the size of an adult hand and ½ inch thick. Bright green and firm ones, harvested in early spring will be the most flavorful, succulent and have fewer spines.
- Thicker, older pads have a thicker sap which many people find have an unpleasant taste.
- Cut the nopales with a sharp paring knife or twist off, leave an inch of stem behind for it to re-sprout.
- Cutting is preferable however as it is less stressful on the plant and helps keep the cactus plant healthy.
- Pop them into a large plastic container or even wrap in newspaper if harvesting in the garden. You need to remove the spines and glochids as soon as possible.
Prickly Pear Pad Tomato Soup
How to Prepare Pads
- Wearing gloves, peel the pads with a potato peeler to remove all the spines and rinse thoroughly.
- Go over them to double check all spines are removed. Apart from the large spine there are also small, hard to see small ones called glochids.
- The glochids are particularly hard to remove if embedded in the skin so do take care. Some species of prickly pear may not have spines but they will all have glochids.
- Another method of preparing the pads is to burn off the spines and glochids with a blow-torch or over a flame using the tongs.
- Peel all around the outside edge of the stems.
- Depending on how you are using this vegetable will determine whether you leave whole, in strips, or cubes.
- If not using immediately the fresh stems may be stored in the fridge. Wrap them tightly in Clingfilm or plastic wrap and store up to 2 weeks.
- When cutting the stems, a tip is to wipe the knife after each cut on kitchen paper. There may be glochids still present.
Salsa para la Ensalada de Nopales
Culinary Uses of Cactus Pads Include
- Cactus tortillas
- Pickled in brine
Ensalada de Nopales
Hojas de Nopales
How to Eat Pads
The pads or nopales may be boiled, grilled or combined with different ingredients in a variety of healthy nutritious dishes. Here are a few suggestions-
Boiling - When boiling the pads, you may have to change the water and re-boil a few times. The sap that comes from the pad may be thick. As a guide, the thicker the pad, the thicker the sap. The pads are then drained off and rinsed in cold water. Why not make up an authentic Mexican salad using chopped onions, cilantros, jalapenos peppers, diced tomatoes and a squeeze of lime juice, salt and pepper.
Grilling - If grilling the pads, season well with salt and pepper. The pads are ready when they are slightly brown in color and tender to the touch. They could also be seasoned with a little olive oil, squeeze of lime juice and a little salt.
Cooked nopales may be added into so many dishes. Why not try mixing them into casseroles and stews. A hearty vegetable soup is a good option as is a summer salad or even just have them alone, your choice is yours with this versatile, nutritious vegetable!
- If it is your first time trying cactus pads, buy them rather than harvesting your own.
- You may also sauté or steam the pads if you prefer.
- Try Elmer’s glue for removing any spines or glochids. Apply the glue over the spines and allow dry until a “skin” forms. The spines lift easily when you peel off the glue. This will also work for any spines embedded from the cactus fruit and works for splinters. If you don’t have the glue, try using duct tape or masking tape instead.
Cosmetic Uses for Prickly Pear
- Skin Oils
- Skin cream
- Face Masks
- Lip Balms
The prickly pear fruit or tunas are oval and vary in size and color. They have an outer slightly tough skin and a fleshy, juicy pulp.
They also contain seeds which are edible though many people prefer to remove these. Whilst they vary in color, the deep reds to purplish ones tend to be the sweetest ones.
In Mexico however, the white tunas are the most popular to eat even though they are less sweet. The name is a bit misleading too as they are in fact green!
As with the stems, the fruit will have glochids. The store-bought prickly pear fruit should be spine free and be safe to handle without gloves. If unprocessed they will need to be thoroughly washed and cleaned before handling them, so always use gloves and a tongs (long BBQ style tongs are perfect).
- Cactus covered almonds and chocolates
Would you eat cactus fruit?
When harvesting your own fruit, remember to wear gloves or use a long tongs. While all cactus fruit is edible not all will be necessarily ripe so look for the darker skinned tunas before they start to wrinkle. They detach pretty easily but use a knife if needed.
Place them in a container, colander or wrap in newspaper or even a few plastic bags, depending on where you are collecting them from.
- Using a tongs, place the fruit 5-6 at a time in a colander and rinse gently under cold water by swirling around. This will remove all the hard to see glochid spines.
- Keep doing this for 3-4 minutes taking care not to bruise the delicate fruit.
- When full satisfied, remove the pears from the colander and pat dry.
- With a sharp kitchen knife, slice off the top and the bottom of the fruit.
- Cut the fruit lengthwise just through the skin (similar to peeling an orange) and make a slit. Use the knife to help lever off the skin and peel off the thick skin.
Eating the Cactus Fruit
The fruit is delicious eaten as is, sliced, chopped or added into a variety of dishes such as sorbets and jam or made into drinks such as a prickly pear juice, smoothie or wine. Refreshing and cooling, this fruit is definitely one to try if you have not done so yet.
It is a bit of a cross between a kiwi fruit and a watermelon, in my opinion considering taste and texture. I prefer to either remove the seeds completely or spit out if eating the fruit whole (as you might with a slice of watermelon).