After reading up a little on the Tarahumara and their diet for last year’s Vegan Mofo, I discovered an ingredient that I was dying to try, nopales, or nodal cactus. That’s right, cactus. Actually, a common cactus found throughout the West, called in English, Prickly Pear. And prickly is right. In order to get this cactus ready to eat requires some careful prep work as the spines are tiny and aggravating. Eating a cactus sounds like something only a dying, starving guy lost in the desire tin an old Western would do. But it turns out nopales is very popular in Mexico in all sorts of dishes. From tacos, to breakfast egg dishes, as a side dish, grilled for fajitas, etc. Despite my love of Mexican cuisine, I had never been exposed to this food.
So why bother? Does it have any special properties to make the hassle worthwhile? Maybe. Some call it a superfood, that just might break out soon. I have my doubts. I have a love/hate relationship with the so-called “superfoods” I wrote about earlier. I love trying new exotic South American foods that might do something special. But I never really see any great benefit. And I think that compared to regular foods, they aren’t really worth the money. Actually, I think any food that humans have bothered to cultivate for thousands of years is a superfood for some reason, even if we haven’t discovered it yet.
So what about nopales?
Well, it has the usual status as high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory. This is getting to be such old news that I’m still shocked the pro-meat crowd ever bothers to argue anymore. Nopales has its own unique profile, but really, all vegetables do. It’s also rumored to be a good detoxifier and good for hangovers. Isn’t that a hair of the dog remedy for tequila? But its real claim to fame, such that it even appeared on Dr. Oz is its ability to control blood sugar, even helping diabetics. All high fiber foods have this benefit, but a couple seem to be so powerful, that it is even worth turning into a supplement. Nopal cactus is one of them, bitter melon is another. (Next week’s challenge) The problem with this anti-diabetes effect? Diabetes has just become the leading cause of death in Mexico. While there is no doubt that Mexicans have changed their diet dramatically in recent years along with other parts of the world, their beloved cactus doesn’t seem to be up to the job. Fun Fact: Mexico has the highest per capita consumption of Coca-Cola.
How to Use Nopales:
Nopales can be bought as raw cactus paddles, Latin markets may sell fresh paddles that have already been cleaned, and maybe even completely prepped. A jarred variety also exists but it is definitely inferior to fresh, as is the case with most vegetables. Compared to most veggies, nopales requires a little more care in prepping. You definitely do not want to eat any of the spines!
I bought my paddles at a farmer’s market, and they had been mostly de-spined. But to be sure, you have to cut away each nub that rises up from the skin to be sure the spine has been completely removed. To do this, peel the nubs away with a kinfe. Don’t peel the whole paddle, leave as much skin as possible. Then cut edge of the paddle away from the base all the way around. Then slice and dice!
What you will notice is that they are quite sticky and gooey. They can be cooked a number of different ways, but what I did was gently boil the cactus strips for about 10 minutes and rinse well. Supposedly this reduces the stick factor. Then I sauteed them with a mix of onions and peppers, both sweet and hot. The nopales thickened the the mix a bit, which I then used as a taco filling along with beans and some salsa.
I will definitely do this again. Its a nice change of pace. I was worried they would have some strange, strong taste, but they are quite mild. They resembled cooked green peppers, but firmer and meatier, and with a bit more crunch. Cleaning them was a bit of a hassle, but not nearly as much as I feared. There are other vegetables that take more work. Since they are renowned in Mexico as a detox veggie, I suppose that makes them perfect for a Taco Cleanse!
Be brave! Eat some cactus today!