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Food Focus: Nopales

If you live in the American Southwest, you’ve very likely seen these bright-green “beaver tail” cactus paddles stacked at your local farmers’ market or in your grocery store. Nopales (plural for nopal, the type of cactus from which they are derived) and their succulent counterpart—the prickly pear fruit—are both abundant and healthful.

Popular in predominantly Mexican and Central American cooking cultures (but also found around the world), and eaten fresh or preserved for centuries, nopales boast many medicinal and nutritional benefits.

  • They are low in calories at 22 per cup of fresh leaves.
  • They are rich in dietary fiber, help with digestion and alleviate constipation.
  • A good source of vitamins A, C and K, they also contain an ample supply of the minerals calcium, magnesium and manganese.

How to Prepare and Eat Them

For ease in preparation and the best flavor and texture, look for young, tender cacti paddles that have been cleaned of their sharp spines. They should be pale green, fresh and firm. Steer clear of thick, mature leaves.

Whole pads can be refrigerated for up to a week. Cut or diced pads should be used as soon as possible.

To prepare, peel the spiny areas of the nopales with a vegetable peeler, but try to retain as much skin as possible. Cut around the perimeter of the paddle, trimming off and discarding about a quarter inch. Cut into strips, or dice into pieces (half-inch to an inch) and either sauté in healthy oil or boil in hot water until the gelatinous ooze inside, similar to that found in okra, reduces or dries up. Salt to taste, and eat straight up or add to other dishes as a flavor and texture booster. Nopales are somewhat chewy and carry a fresh “green” taste reminiscent of asparagus and French green beans.

As for the fruit, known commonly in the Latin world as “tuna,” scrub off the hairy spines or slice off the outer skin as you would clean a kiwi. The flavor of the prickly pear is best described as watermelon and berry-like. While it’s not exactly pungent, supersweet or tart, it has a pleasant fruit flavor. Be ready to work around the many pulpy seeds inside the tuna.

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