Remember those old Westerns where some poor character would die in the desert if they did not slice open a cactus to drink the water inside? Too bad they did not think to eat some, too. It is very edible, and is often used in Mexican cooking. It is a very tasty ingredient that few outside Mexico appreciate.
The prickly pear, or nopal cactus, is the one that many people eat. You may see them labeled as cactus paddles, due to the shape. The fruit of this is also edible and is called tuna in Mexico. It has been a staple ingredient for the Mayans and Aztecs as well as many other indigenous groups in Mesoamerica.
As with many other traditional Mexican foods, cactus can be eaten raw or cooked. The fruit of the cactus can taste sweet or sour. When sour, they are most often cooked. When sweet, they are eaten raw. It is high in vitamins A and C, B vitamins and iron. The leaves have a lemony flavor when eaten raw.
Its spines can be scraped off with a knife, though if you purchase it from the grocery store the spines will already be gone. Have you noticed it in your local store? If not, you may need to visit a Mexican market or order your cactus online. Simply do a search for nopals and you will find many sites to order it from. If you live where it grows naturally, harvest some with a knife. Take a bag or basket to bring it home in, and wear heavy gloves.
Choose tender young pads. Look for firm flesh without any soft, wilted spots. Peel the pad with a vegetable peeler or knife. Cut them up and add them raw to salads. You can also enjoy them grilled or boiled. When boiled, it tastes kind of like green beans. Grilled cacti can be served with grilled meat.
To help them cook faster, cut up your cactus into strips or cubes. It has a mucilaginous liquid inside that is sometimes extracted and used for fiber supplements. It has been suggested to use a pinch of baking soda or a copper penny in the water to help extract this sticky sap. Try it and see what works for you. Boiled it may need to be drained from the first water bath and boiled again in fresh water.
This wonderful Mexican ingredient can easily be added to your recipes to make them more authentic. Try stuffing them or serving them with chipotle sauce. If you want to grill them, season the pieces generously with salt, pepper and your favorite spices. You can eat them when they are barely browned and tender.
Your cooked cactus can be added to omelets, salads, and soups. They can also be used as a simple snack. Grill them with mushrooms, lime juice, and olive oil for a tasty dish. One traditional way to enjoy its pads is to boil them, then cook them with onions, chilies, garlic and cilantro with a salsa verde sauce. Pile it on the tortilla of your choice and fold it over. Enjoy it anytime you want a traditional Mexican dish.
Cinco de Mayo recipes can include anything you feel like making. Perhaps you want a soup or a casserole, or maybe just a table full of appetizers and salsas. Either way, the food will be a wonderful addition to your celebration. Jump right in and celebrate Mexico’s heritage!