Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Foraging Cactus Paddles- Nopales/Nopalitos- and Prickly Pears- Tunas

Do you know how often people pick or eat one part of a vegetable or plant, having no clue that another part of that same plant is also edible, and in many cases, even more useful and tasty and versatile than the part they'd been eating until then? (If you want to know more about plants that you probably didn't know you can eat, see here and here and here.)
Well, cactus paddles are one of those foods. I'd been eating their fruit, also known as prickly pears or tunas, for years and years, but I had no idea whatsoever that the cactus itself was edible. Who knew? Something so covered in spines, so dangerous to even "look at", is actually nutritious and delicious! (I'll talk about that more in a future post.)
But yes, cactus paddles themselves are actually quite a delicious food, and are a kitchen staple in Mexico and Southern US. Cactus paddles are called nopales or nopalitos in Spanish.

Originally from Central America, you actually can find prickly pear cactuses (optunia in Latin) now in almost all of the world, including nearly all US states, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. There are many different varieties of prickly pear cactus, but one thing they all have in common- they're all edible, both paddles and fruit, and all have medicinal benefits. Even if you can't find cactus paddles growing wild, if you live in an area with lots of Mexicans, cactus paddles are even sold in the grocery store.

Nopales have an interesting taste and texture. When you first cut them open raw, they have a texture very similar to aloe vera- its very slimy and mucilaginous- but when cooked properly, they have a texture similar to cooked green peppers, and a taste like a cross between a lemony green bean and green peppers.

But the thing is, as much as cactus paddles are tasty and yummy and delicious, if you just take one and try to eat it as is, you'll really, really regret it, because cactus paddles and fruit are covered in two (actually three, but I'll get to that in a bit) types of thorns. One type of thorn is very big and obvious, but there are tiny, tiny, nearly invisible thorns called glochids that hurt and irritate a lot if you get them in your skin, but are very difficult to remove. In order to remove glochids, you have to hold your finger/hand in the light at exactly the right angle, and then you'll see something that looks like a really short, straight, blond hair sticking out of your skin, and you'll need to remove that, either with fingernails or a tweezer.
Prickly pear thorns are so stubborn and difficult to remove that I know many people with this type of cactus in their yard that refuse to go near them, as they're too scared of them. They invite and and anyone else to come pick them, and don't even want us coming near them after picking, as they're afraid that the thorns will fly over from me to them. But don't worry- they don't fly! Thorns only get embedded directly into your skin or clothes, so as long as you make sure not to let your skin or clothes touch the thorns, you'll be fine. And if not, I've heard duct tape works wonders (but haven't tried it yet myself).
On that note, I strongly suggest NOT using gardening gloves for this, at least not the standard ones, as cactus thorns are very tenacious and will work their way through fabric, both poking you through the fabric, as well as lodging themselves in the fabric, which will ensure that every time after that when you put on your gardening gloves, you will get thorns stuck inside, necessitating in throwing out those gardening gloves. I speak from experience here. If you need to touch the prickly pear cactus at all, do so with something thick like cardboard, thick plastic, or metal in between your hands and the cactus. I usually use an empty cereal box or the cut bottom of a plastic soda bottle.

So how do you identify prickly pear cactuses? Well, they're green cactuses comprised of a bunch of thorn covered circular or oval shaped paddles, growing out from each other, either in a low lying mass on the ground, or as an upright bush type thing. Some even have tree trunks when they get big enough, and then have the paddles growing out of that.

So, lets start first with the prickly pear/tuna itself.

Prickly Pears/Tuna Fruit
What does it look like, where does it grow, how do you pick it, and how do you eat it, and what does it taste like?

This is a picture of the ripe fruit of a prickly pear. Prickly pears come in all sorts of colors- my friend's come out a bright magenta color, but our local variety's prickly pears are either orange or yellow. You usually find a bunch growing along the outer edges (either the top or the side) of a prickly pear cactus (I assume in the areas that get the most sunlight), usually a bunch of fruit protruding from a few different paddles.

To pick a prickly pear, if you're tall enough, get close without touching the paddles. Hold a container underneath the prickly pear fruit with one hand, and with the over use large scissors to cut the fruit off of the cactus. If you want to, next pour out the prickly pear fruit onto the dirt and roll them around a bit (using your shoe or a stick to push them) to remove some of the thorns. Or you can skip this part and move on to the next step.

To eat the prickly pear, cut off both ends- both the side that was closest to the cactus paddle on which it was growing, and the side directly opposite (being extra careful here, because this is the side with the most thorns on it). Then either score it lengthwise, or cut it in half lengthwise. Peel off the outside thorny part of the fruit, and you'll find a seedy pulpy fruit inside, with a texture and taste similar to watermelon, in addition to having lots of hard small seeds, which you can either eat or discard. You can use this prickly pear fruit as is, blended and strained to get out the seed, or juiced and then added to recipes.

Cactus Paddles
I first learned that prickly pear cactus paddles were edible about a year ago. I tried picking a few and, though they tasted ok, they were filled with really fibrous, stringy parts,  even after peeling them so much that there was barely anything left, making me not want to try again. But, as with my pine nuts, failing a first time doesn't mean that I won't try again and hopefully be successful; I was determined to try foraging cactus paddles again and this time do it right.
I found out the biggest difference between the types of cactus paddles in terms of edibility is just the age of the cactus paddles! Younger cactus paddles are completely edible; its the older ones that are so fibrous that you can't really eat them easily.
To pick them, use scissors and a container to catch them. I find covering the paddle with a cereal box, then cutting off the paddle, works best.

I made a video showing the difference between the different types of cactus paddles and how to tell which are edible, but for those of you who can't see the video, I'm including a description as well.

This is what a good cactus paddle looks like. See that it's covered with little, clearly visible green, and sorta curved thorns?

That's how you know it's an immature cactus paddle. When the cactus paddles are older, these will fall off, revealing the glochids (tiny, near invisible thorns) underneath, and then it'll grow the longer, bigger (inch or so long) thorns typically found on cactuses.

Before I continue, this is a mature cactus paddle.

Do NOT pick this type- it's way too fibrous to be edible. The way you know whether you shouldn't pick a cactus paddle is if:
A) Its thick, especially if its as thick as a thumb
B) It has other cactus paddles growing out of it
C) It has fruit growing from it

See this paddle in the front and the large, wide, yellow thorn like things? That's an immature cactus paddle.

See in the back right there is a very thin darker green cactus paddle? That is the absolute best type of cactus paddle to use, in my opinion, as they have the best texture. These can be fried, grilled, boiled, sauted, baked, etc... simply used as is, so long as the thorns are removed.

The other types of immature cactus paddles have to have their thorns removed (either scrape off with a non serrated knife, or slice off the thorns by holding a serrated knife parralel to the paddle and removing). Then cut off the edges...

 ...Chop up, and then boil for 20-30 minutes in salted water.

The thing you should know about cactus paddles and their maturity/immaturity is that their skin gets more and more fibrous/hard/tough as they age.
The youngest, thinnest cactus paddles can be eaten as is.
The slightly older ones need to be boiled first for a long time to soften their skin, otherwise you can't chew the skin. If you cook it enough, their skin feels just like the peel of a cooked green pepper- slightly papery, but otherwise edible. You're also able to peel these with your fingernails- just start pulling up a strip of the skin, and pull off as much as you can, then pull off some more, etc... until the whole thing is peeled. A peeler, unfortunately, doesn't work for this.
And, as mentioned before, the older paddles are just too fibrous to eat at all.

How to Eat/Cook Nopales
I prefer my nopales boiled first, no matter their age, because it removes the slime and a lot of their sourness, and I prefer a more mild flavored nopale, as I find it more versatile in cooking.
You can also dry fry it or grill it to remove the slime.

I've juiced raw nopales, without removing their thorns first (but straining out the pulp), and mixed it with other juices as a nutritious, medicinal drink (see further down). You can use even mature paddles for this.

Different recipes I've made with nopales:

My favorite was this salad with black olives, boiled nopales, hearts of palm, tomatoes, chickpeas and purslane
. It was so flavorful as is that all I added was a drop of oil and a drop of garlic and salt.

I've made a salad with boiled nopales, fresh tomatoes, garlic, salt, olive oil, and pepper. I wish I had a picture, but my brother loved it so much that he devoured it all in one sitting when my back was turned.

The standard way to eat nopales is in scrambled eggs.

I made nopales with black beans, tomatoes, garlic, and oregano, and served it over rice.

I've also breaded and fried peeled (unboiled) nopales. I've seen recipes that call for stuffing nopales with cheese. They're also usually put in quesadillas with cheese.

I like to put nopales in taco soup instead of or in addition to peppers.

I think I want to try nopales in sloppy joes. I have a feeling they'd work well.

Nutritional and Medicinal Benefits of Prickly Pear Cactus:
Prickly pear cactus paddles are a good source of vitamins A, C, B complex, K, as well as containing calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, copper, and 17 amino acids (8 of which are essential for the human body). They're full of antioxidants, and actually contain qualities that make them lower blood sugar and cholesterol, making this a very good food for diabetics and people with high cholesterol. (In fact, they even sell cactus paddle supplements for this purpose.)
Medicinally cactus paddles can be used similarly to aloe vera- their mucilage (mucusy stuff) is great for skin ailments, such as burns, cuts, and dry, chapped skin. Their mucilage is good for sore throats and coughs and is antiviral. Its anti-inflamatory, boosts the immune system, protects against fluid retention, and strengthens the urinary system in women. (From here and here.)

Cactus paddles and their fruit have become one of the regular sources of food in our house lately. I'm sure you can see why!

Growing Your Own:
If you like prickly pear cactus fruit and want to grow your own, it's actually very easy to do so. Just pick a mature paddle, let it dry out for a day, bury it halfway in the ground (either upright or on its side), and it will start growing. Water it approximately once a week or less. If it needs more water, it'll start drooping. Better water it too little than too much.

Have you ever eaten prickly pear cactus fruit or paddles? Do you like them? What is your favorite way to eat them? If you cook cactus paddles, what is your favorite way to prepare them?

Linking up to Hearth and Soul Blog Hop


  1. I have been eating nopalitos all my life for the past 55 years. Nopalitos have their season which is about march and April. The young pads are the ones that are edible. The variety that I eat are the caseros, because we grow them in the back yard and do not have many spines.

  2. If nopales give you bad stomach cramps and vomiting, could it be they were not cleaned properly? I was worried because of read some were found with pesticide residue but could the problem have been from the thorns?

  3. Some pesticide reside can still be lingering throughout the cacti if non organic it can make one very sick don't knock it till you try it. Like marijuana for medication

  4. i ben eat nopalitos bout 70 geers i 79 old do jung ones if u ken fine make in hot water fi r tn minit gude wif egs an tomate an chiles mi gran chiren tell mi tu rit to ju luis flores i jus to rink--no mas!!

  5. just cooked my first one: used kitchen tongs to hold it over the fire of my gas burner to singe off any tiny thorns. Rinse, then peeled or cut off the remainder.

    Sauteed in coconut oil and ate with my eggs. Delicious and crunchy!

    And the prickly pear itself when ripe: singe the thorns off, rinse, and cut into quarters. Put in a mason jar and fill with your favorite liquor (rum, gin, vodka, tequila). Refrigerate for a week and you will have the most delicious smooth prickly pear liquor. Beware: it's potent! Something about that cactus pear ramps up the alcohol content. Pour over ice and mix with blood orange peligrino. And drink at home....

  6. I normally put them in a gallon zip lock bag with olive oil, a bit of lemon juice, a little salt because they soak it up pretty well and ground pepper. Leave them there for about an hour at least then grill them till the skin is light green. Taste excellent. The juice left from the zip lock bag now combined with some cactu slime, I use to throw in asparagus, toss more salt in there and do the same. Also very tasty.

  7. Thanks for this, since Australian doesn't have a lot of Mexican style cooking you dont see cactus on the menu. But as you have indicated we do have "prickly pear" here. It tend to grow more in the Northen part of Australia.

  8. wow so fascinating! i never knew the fruit was called tuna either, we just call em "sabras" here :)

  9. I "skinned" the nopales under running water using a fillet knife. Thick rubber gloves worked best. I gathered a lot of fruit also last year and after removing spines, blended the whole fruit, strained out the seeds and froze the puree. We have an abundance of wild Cactus plants in surrounding hills. Food for free indeed. Thanks for the very interesting article.

  10. I boil and purée the tougher paddles and make a nopales bread. #noshame


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