Nopales – the flesh pads of the prickly pear cactus
Nopales (with the spines removed) are a traditional ingredient in Mexican cuisine and widely available in Mexican food markets (and some in the US). They are a good source of calcium and vitamin C and contain beta-carotene and iron. They have a small amount of carbohydrate and an amazingly low GI – 7. Sometimes called ‘edible cactus’ or ‘cactus pear pads’, nopales are usually sold ‘despined’ although you’d probably have to trim the eyes with a vegetable peeler to remove any remaining ‘prickers’. They can be diced for salads; steamed quickly as an accompaniment (the texture should be crunchy); added to soups, salsas, stews, stir-fries, fillings for scrambled eggs or tortillas; or stirred into Mexican-style recipes with chilli, tomatoes and corn. Chef and cookbook author Peter Howard (Delicious Living and Delicious Entertaining out this month) says that he doesn’t know of the pads being used in Australia: ‘But years ago the fruit was marketed as Indian figs and made great sorbets and ice drinks with an absolutely delicious flavour. However, it was destined to injure the thousands of people who picked them up with naked hands!’
A new study in May 2007 Diabetes Care by Bacardi-Gascon and co-workers from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California found that adding nopales (the fleshy pads) to a meal reduced blood glucose spikes after eating. The researchers recruited 36 volunteers (average BMI was 25) with type 2 diabetes aged between 47 and 72 and, after an 18-hour fast, assigned them to eat one of three typical Mexican breakfasts – scrambled egg and tomato burritos, chilaquiles (cheese, beans and tomato sauce with corn tortillas), or quesadillas with avocados and pinto beans, with or without 85 grams (about 3 oz) of nopales. The blood glucose levels of the volunteers who ate the nopales with their meal were 20–48% lower (depending on the type of meal) than those volunteers who ate the test breakfasts on their own.
The following recipe is from The Prickly Pear Cookbook by Carolyn Niethammer, www.cniethammer.com which contains 60 recipes from chefs around the world along with full-color photos of each dish. (Rio Nuevo Press, 120 pages, fully illustrated in color, $14.95, www.rionuevo.com).
Classic Mexican Nopalito Salad
Makes 2 servings
2 medium nopales, cleaned
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons finely minced onion
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped green chillies, canned or fresh
1 or 2 finely minced Serrano chillies
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons finely crumbled queso fresco blanco, queso fresco or feta cheese
- Preheat oven to 190ºC/375ºF.
- Cut nopales in strips about 2.5 cm/1 inch wide. Brush on both sides with vegetable oil and arrange on a cookie sheet. Roast for 10 minutes or until they have become olive green, then turn piece over to cook the other sides. When cool, slice each strip into pieces the width of a wooden matchstick and half as long. Combine in a medium bowl along with the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve on lettuce leaves or as a stuffing for hot-off-the-griddle corn tortillas.