Desert delight

Is cactus is the new kale?

Posted by Meaghan Habuda on Wed, Jun 18, 2014 at 11:29 AM

THE NEXT BIG GREEN THING: A bowl of tangy cactus salad, or ensalada de nopales. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • THE NEXT BIG GREEN THING: A bowl of tangy cactus salad, or ensalada de nopales.

There’s a new kind of green in town, and it just might provide enough bite to kick kale to the curb.

Residents of Mexico have been eating and cultivating Opuntia ficus-indica, known as prickly pear cactus, for centuries. Its pads, called nopales in Spanish, are one of Mexico’s most popular veggies. Alongside tomatillos and mangos, they’re a true staple of Mexican and Central American cooking.

Sicilians are no strangers to consuming the fruit, or tunas, of the prickly pear cactus, either. A go-to snack once peeled and sans spines, the fruits carry natural sugars to satisfy any sweet tooth. Italy is second to Mexico in production of cactus fruit.

With 350 acres dedicated to the thorny edible, D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California functions as the United States’ largest cactus farm for food production.

Prickly pear has other locales, including Morocco, Ethiopia and Chile. The rise of nopales in various agricultural industries has elevated cactus from weed to sought-after crop — so much so that Modern Farmer contributing writer Sam Brasch proposed the idea of cactus as the new emerging vegetable trend in his book A Prickly Question: Could Cactus Be the Next Kale?

With spiky, flat leaves, prickly pear cactus may not look as plate-friendly as kale, but it’s grown locally — in Colorado, for example — and offers health benefits, making it an ideal eat for locavores and those who are mad about wellness.

In an interview with the radio program The Splendid Table, Brasch said, “It’s easy to grow, it requires no agricultural inputs, or if it does, they’re very little water, very little pesticide and very little fertilizer ... and as far as these semi-arid or arid places, it can’t get much more local than cactus.”

Prickly pear reduces cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and can be used as a remedy for hangovers. Nopales offer vitamins A and C and calcium, which are also found in tunas, as well as fiber and antioxidants. Herbal medicine firms are acknowledging Mexican research that shows cactus’ medicinal properties, but the U.S. government hasn’t backed any findings.

Tunas, the colorful cactus fruit. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Tunas, the colorful cactus fruit.

El Gallo Grande, a Mexican restaurant that opened May 12 along Fourth Street South in St. Petersburg, serves a cactus salad with tomato, red onions, cilantro, olive oil and queso fresco. Dunedin’s Casa Tina on Main Street makes one, too.

After trying El Gallo Grande’s rendition, I’d describe the nopales’ taste as a cross between okra and green beans. The texture of the cactus is a bit slimy once cooked, but the dish was tangy and flavorful.

When preparing prickly pear for a meal at home, be sure to purchase nopales that are bright green and firm, or tunas that have reddish-orange or purple skin. If the spines haven’t been removed, handle the cactus parts with gloves and use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to eliminate their spines.

Wash the nopales and tunas under cold water while still wearing gloves. Doing so will prevent glochids, the tinier cactus spines, from irritating, or getting stuck in, exposed skin. Burning off the nopales’ spines and glochids with a small torch also works.

Nopales are added to taco fillings, omelets, stir-fries, soups and more. Depending on how they’re being used, slice the nopales or leave ’em whole for boiling or grilling. It’s best to skin the tunas, which can be served as slices or made into jam, jelly and sorbet.

Some species of the cactus are native to Florida, and nopales are sold by vendors at South Florida farmers’ markets. Florida’s prickly pear cactus season lasts June through September, so it’s not too late to indulge in this next culinary trend ahead of the masses.

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