Constance Brossa en FOOD, Writers 24/11/2016 · 1 min de lectura · +300

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

2. Fried

3. Boiled

4. Grilled

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

8 medium-size flour tortillas

4 cups leaf lettuce, finely shredded

Cut prickly-pear pad in 1 1/2 -inch squares. Film heavy frying pan with oil. Add pad pieces (nopalitos) and cook over low heat, turning occasionally, until pieces have given up much of their juice and are slightly brown. Remove from pan, cool and chop into pieces as wide as a matchstick and about 1/4-inch long.

Transfer to a medium-size bowl. Add remaining ingredients (except for chicken, tortillas and lettuce), stir to combine and set aside for flavors to mingle.

Grill the chicken breasts until done. Warm the tortillas while you slice each chicken breast crosswise into 8 pieces. Divide the chicken and lettuce evenly among tortillas and top with salsa. Fold tortillas to enclose the stuffing.

Yield: 4 servings

Prickly-Pear Lemonade

Recipe from “The Prickly Pear Cookbook”

4 or 5 lemons

6 cups water

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (or equivalent non-nutritive sweetener)

1/4 cup prickly-pear juice or syrup


Scrub the lemons and slice 1/4-inch thick. Place in a large heat-proof bowl or pitcher. Bring water to a boil and pour over the lemons. Stir in sugar. (Use less sugar if you’ll be adding prickly-pear syrup, more if you’ll use juice.) Let sit 4 hours. Strain off the juice and add the prickly-pear product. Taste and correct for sweetness. Refrigerate or serve immediately over ice.

Yield: 4 servings

In praise of the prickly pear cactus

Constance Brossa 25/11/2016 · #2

Glad you found this to be relevant. Thanks for the feedback.

Aurorasa Sima 24/11/2016 · #1

I recently had them for the first time. Liked the red ones better. Thanks for all of the info on those little prickly pears.