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February, 2008

Eat a Cactus

By Dennis Linden

Chewing on a cactus may not seem like a smart or tasty thing to do, however the Nopal cactus leaf provides both a flavorful fruit and a healthy vegetable that will add a new dimension to your culinary toolbox.

Cactus Leaves
Chewing on a cactus may not seem like a smart or tasty thing to do, however the Nopal cactus leaf provides both a flavorful fruit and a healthy vegetable that will add a new dimension to your culinary toolbox. While the flat, broad leaves of this native plant (usually referred to as “pads”) of the southwest U.S. and Mexico are a common item in most retail produce departments, it’s a good bet that most consumers do not know how to prepare them. Too bad, because this vegetable has quite a delicious flavor mix, reminiscent of green beans and bell peppers with a hint of lemon essence. After making sure to remove all spines by scraping thoroughly with a knife or a potato peeler, brush the pads with oil, grill whole and serve hot, or cut them up into “fries”, coat with a batter of milk and egg, then deep fry. The traditional Mexican preparation is to simply dice the pad and mix with scrambled eggs or quickly grill and cut into strips for use in tacos, enchilada fillings or quesadillas.

For diabetics, here’s a great natural way to control your blood sugar: cactus leaves, also called "nopales" on most menus, have a very low glycemic rating. Extensive research has proven that there is a significant drop in blood sugar within one hour after ingesting them and that glucose levels continue to decline for another two hours! There is also mounting evidence being collected to support the belief that regular consumption of the leaves decreases insulin resistance.

Prickly Pear
The same plant also produces another very common produce item that most all shoppers have heard of but have never tried, the Prickly Pear. Again, this is also a missed flavor opportunity. The fruit has a very light sweetness to it with a flowery aroma and the juicy consistency of a watermelon accented with a subtle berry taste. The oval-shaped fruit is really a very large berry with edible seeds packed in a spiked, inedible skin. The fruit bulbs typically pop out around the edges of each pad. The color of this delectable fruit can range from light green to a rich red or purple. A good rule of thumb to remember is that the dark red fruit is the sweetest.

While the Prickly Pear was obviously named for its spines, it is easily peeled with a paring knife. One slit, top to bottom and then peel it away. Another no fuss way of getting at the goods inside is to cut it in half and simply scoop out the fruit. Purée for use in fruit drinks, a dessert sauce or even as a fruity salad dressing. Interestingly, the largest commercial cactus pear farming operation (over 10,000 acres) is not in the southwest or Mexico, but in Sicily. It seems that Columbus brought a few plants back to Spain on his first return from the New World. The fruit’s popularity spread quickly throughout southern Europe. The fruit is as popular today in Italy as it is in its native Mexico. A little fact to back up your promise to dinner guests of a special Italian dessert, a bowl of Amaretto Gelato (Italian ice cream) drizzled with Prickly Pear Sauce.