By Diane Young
Do people really eat cactus? Sure they do and have for ages. Especially the prickly pear cactus or Opunta in Latin.
In Spanish it’s called nopal or nopales(say no-pah-less). There are about 114 species native to Mexico. A “nopalito” is the edible pad or “hand”, growing out like an ear from the large branches. The fruit or “prickly pears” are called tuna, not to be confused with tun or atun, Spanish for tuna fish.
The prickly pear cactus is considered a staple food in Mexico. Roughly 58 thousands tons of nopales and tuna are eaten annually. It’s also fed to cattle. Nopales are sold fresh, either whole, sliced or chopped with the sharp spines removed.
Nopales have a bland, slightly tart flavor, some think similar to green beans, with a crisp, slippery texture. They’re rich in bioflavinoids and antioxidants, as well as a good source of magnesium and manganese.
But let’s get down to the eating part. The easiest way to enjoy nopales is to buy a bag that’s already de-thorned and chopped. Put them in a large pot, cover with cold water, plus 1/2 tsp. of salt, boil ten minutes, drain, cool and refrigerate til needed. Then you can toss a handful in salads, spaghetti sauce, and casseroles.
Nopales are also eaten at breakfast in traditional huevos rancheros, ranch-style scrambled eggs, prepared with sauteed onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, your favorite herbs and shredded cheese on top.
Muy sabroso or just plain delish!
If you’re grilling, grilled nopales are a quick side dish. Rinse and pat dry and trim off the tough stem end and the outer edges of de-spined whole nopales. Make parallel cuts 1/2 inch apart from the round end toward the stem end, but don’t cut all the way through. Brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill a couple of minutes over a hot fire on both sides. They’re ready when soft and dark green. Finish slicing and serve hot with fresh salsa heaped on top and your grilled carne asada, chicken, fish or shrimp.
Here’s the big plus for nopales. They not only help regulate blood sugar, but some people swear that if you eat them before getting red-nosed, they will prevent a hangover!
Thanks for the image “Nopal11” by jlastras – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlastras/3107247530/.