In praise of the prickly pear cactus
How versatile is the prickly pear cactus? Let us count the ways Native Americans have long consumed this hearty food:
1. Fresh off the vine
If the thought of eating cactus worries you, fear not. Wild-food expert and cookbook author Carolyn J. Niethammer says, “All prickly pears are edible and nontoxic.” Cholla cactuses are unpalatable.
The prickly pear plant, abundant throughout the West but found as far east as Massachusetts, has three edible sections: the pad (nopal) of the cactus, which can be treated like a vegetable; the petals of the flowers, which can be added to salads; and the pear (tuna), which can be treated like a fruit.
For centuries, Native Americans made candy and chewing gum from the fruit or mashed the tunas into a dish akin to applesauce. They also turned it into jelly, juice and syrup. These and other variations of the food are still consumed today by Natives and non-Natives alike.
It’s no wonder that a food high in fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids gets a favorable nod from the Mayo Clinic. According to the famed medical institution, preliminary evidence shows prickly pear cactus can lessen blood sugar levels among type 2 diabetics. Its extract might also ease the side effects of a hangover. In the past, Natives would split the cactus open and apply it directly to wounds as a salve. In other instances, it was used to treat rheumatism and mumps.
Grilled Chicken With Nopalito and Pineapple Salsa
Recipe from “The Prickly Pear Cookbook”
1 raw, cleaned prickly-pear pad (nopal)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup canned crushed pineapple packed in its own juice
1/4 cup red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/4 cup green onions, including some tops, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon canned green chiles, chopped
1 serrano chile, finely minced (optional)
1/2 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely minced (optional)
4 large boneless chicken breasts