Prickly Pear Cactus Is Spiked With Great Benefits

prickly pear laid on wooden board

Sometimes I like to have fun with my guests and serve them something a little out of the ordinary. I enjoy seeing skepticism turn to pleasure on their faces when I introduce them to a new food they’d never imagine eating, but once they try it, they enjoy.

Prickly pears, also known as cactus pears, are one of those foods. It’s the fruit of the opuntia cactus, which is the one with the paddle-like leaves (also edible, but more on that later). Prickly pears are popular in Mexico, South and Central America, around the Mediterranean and South Africa. In this country they are at their best April through August and can be found fresh in Latin markets, or even mainstream markets in Hispanic neighborhoods. You can also use canned prickly pear cactus if you can’t find it fresh.

The fruit is about egg size and can be pale green to purplish. The taste and aroma of the flesh is melon-like and a little flowery, while the texture is a bit like a watermelon. It’s most often peeled and diced into a fruit salad or fruit pie, or pureed and used in drinks, sauces and jams.

Green Cactus Pears on market

What puts prickly pears into the FoodTrients category is that they are low in calories and high in fiber while rich in vitamin C, and contain calcium and antioxidant compounds. Consuming foods high in antioxidants may help decrease risk of cancer, heart disease, eye disorders such as cataracts and neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. There is some preliminary evidence that indicates prickly pear cactus can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

According to Katherin Zaratsky, R.D., L.D. of the Mayo Clinic, “It’s too early to call prickly pear cactus a superfood and more research is needed to confirm these benefits, but it can be part of a healthy diet.”

Prickly Pear with cactus fruits and flower

The cactus paddles or nopales can be eaten, too. Remove the thorns (wear gloves!) with a vegetable peeler. Many markets sell them fresh with the thorns already removed. Nopales are usually cut into strips and simmered for about twenty minutes to make them tender. They can also be roasted or grilled, then cut into strips once cooled. The strips are delicious in scrambled eggs, soups, stews, salsas or in salads. I like to add them to ceviche right before I serve it to my guests.

Nopales are FoodTrient-worthy as well—one cup is a good source of vitamins A and C and provides significant amounts of manganese, magnesium, calcium and potassium. It’s also an excellent source of dietary fiber, while extremely low in calories and carbohydrates.

You could create a whole delicious meal around the cactus plant, from appetizer to dessert!

CHARRED TOMATO-NOPAL SALSA

Servings: 2 cups

Ingredients

4 medium (about 8 ounces total) nopales (fresh cactus paddles)
2 onions (about 7 ounces)
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 ¼ pounds (6 to 8 plum or 12 large round) ripe tomatoes
5 (12 ounces total) fresh jalapeño or other medium-hot fresh chile
½ tsp. Mexican oregano
Salt

Instructions:

  1. Holding a paddle with a pair of tongs, trim off the edge that outlines the paddle, including the blunt end where the paddle was severed from the plant. Slice or scrape off the spiny nodes from both sides of the paddle.
  2. Heat a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal fire and let it burn until the charcoal is covered with white ash.
  3. Lay the nopales and onions on the grill and drizzle with oil.
  4. Add the tomatoes and chiles to the grill and cook, turning everything at least once, until the vegetables are charred on all sides and very soft, about 10 minutes for the nopales and 15 minutes for the onions, tomatoes and chiles. Let cool.
  5. Stem and seed the chiles, then cut them into 1/2-inch pieces and place in a bowl.
  6. Chop the tomatoes and nopales the same size and add to the bowl.
  7. Dice onions into 1/4-inch pieces and add to the bowl.
  8. Sprinkle in the oregano and mix well. Taste and season with salt.
  9. Serve with chips, grilled fish or chicken.

 

GRILLED MEXICAN SHRIMP WITH PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS
30 each U-15 shrimp (peeled and deveined)
2 Tbs. chili garlic paste, available in oriental markets
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
2 limes, juice of
1 Tbs. peanut oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
6 ounces of arugula
2 ounces sliced and cooked nopales (cactus paddles)
1/2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 cup prickly pear cactus fruit vinaigrette, recipe to follow

Instructions:

1.      Marinate shrimp overnight in the chili garlic paste, cilantro, lime juice, peanut oil, salt and black pepper.
2.      Grill shrimp until cooked all of the way through, about three minutes on each side.
3.      While grilling the shrimp: toss the arugula and nopales with the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
4.      Place arugula and hearts of palm salad in the middle of the plate. Arrange shrimp around it. Spoon the vinaigrette around the shrimp.

PRICKLY PEAR VINAIGRETTE
2 prickly pear cactus fruits
1/2 banana
2 Tbs. honey
1 Tbs. rice wine vinegar
2 Tbs. lemon juice (about ½ lemon)
2 Tbs. lime juice (about ½ lime)

Instructions:

1.      Peel skin off of prickly pears and the banana and put the fruit into a blender.
2.      Add the honey, vinegar, lemon and lime juices and blend until smooth.
3.      Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper. If too sweet for your taste add more vinegar. If too tart, add more honey. If too thin, add more banana. If too thick, add a dash of apple juice.
4.      Strain through a fine sieve before serving.

 

PRICKLY PEAR JELLY

1 gallon prickly pear cactus fruit, very ripe, deep garnet color
4 cups juice
4 cups sugar
2 packages fruit pectin

Instructions:

1.      Gather the fruit using tongs and gloves. Put fruit in sink with water. Using tongs, swish in water to remove stickers.
2.      Cut fruit in half. Place in large pan.
3.      Boil until fruit is shriveled.
4.      Mash with potato masher, and then strain through jelly bag or cheese cloth.
5.      Bring juice and pectin to boil.
6.      Add sugar and boil to jelly stage.
7.      Pour into jelly glasses and seal.
8.      Serve on whole grain pancakes or waffles.

 

About Grace O

Grace O has been cooking and baking professionally and recreationally all of her adult life. As a child in Southeast Asia, she learned the culinary arts by her mother’s side in her family’s cooking school. She became so well versed in hospitality and the culinary arts, she eventually took over the cooking school and opened three restaurants. She is widely credited with popularizing shrimp on sugar-cane skewers and being one of the first culinarians to make tapas a global trend. She has cooked for ruling families and royalty. Grace O’s move to America precipitated a career in healthcare, inspired by her father, who was a physician. Twenty years and much hard work later, she operates skilled nursing facilities in California. Grace O strives to create flavorful food using the finest ingredients that ultimately lead to good health. Her recipes, although low in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, are high in flavor. Grace employs spices from all over the world to enliven her dishes, creating food that is different and delicious. She believes that food can be just as effective at fighting aging as the most expensive skin creams. And since she’s over 50 herself, she’s living proof of that. foodtrients.com
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