The dual-purpose cactus
Manfred Warmuth harvests a cactus paddle from his garden.
Ever notice large stands of cactus with hot pink fruit growing randomly alongside farm fields in the Monterey Bay area? These are nopal cactus, native to Mexico and planted by farm workers who brought them here from their home country. With uses that range from a hangover remedy to a blood sugar regulator, this prickly succulent is finally getting some recognition, thanks to a few creative local food and drink producers who take on the tough job of spine removal, and turn the paddles and the sweet fruit into brilliant products.
The Opuntia cacti, commonly called nopales in Spanish, refers to the fleshy cactus pads that bear sweet-tart magenta fruit called tuna in Spanish, and prickly pears in English. There are about 115 known nopales species native to Mexico, most of them edible. Opuntia ficus-indica and Opuntia joconostle are the two most often farmed.
Nopal cactus is abundant in Central Mexico and a common ingredient in Mexican dishes and traditional medicine. However, most of the nopal grown in Mexico is fed to livestock. Farming of nopal provides Mexican communities with work, food and income, allowing them to afford to stay on their land.
For hundreds of years nopal has been a staple in the diet of Latin Americans and is so coveted that the Mexican flag has a prickly pear cactus on it.
The liquid inside the paddles and the juice from the fruit also provide a hydrating source for both humans and animals in the arid regions. Native Americans used prickly pears to make colonche—a fermented alcoholic beverage—and rarer varieties of the cactus possess small amounts of mescaline, a psychotropic substance.
Here in the States, the nopal cactus was mostly planted by rogue propagators, and luckily they knew the very best variety to plant, says Tabitha Stroup, owner of Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. in Soquel. The hot pink Mexican prickly pears are the tastiest around, delivering a tart-sweet, bright flavor and high tannic acids. There is also a Spanish yellow variety that can be found locally but doesn’t grow as well as the magenta fruiting cactus because it prefers ashy, volcanic soils. Stroup uses the Mexican fruits in her Prickly Purple Heart Jam, from which part of the proceeds benefits Jacob’s Heart Foundation. Stroup is a wealth of knowledge about the nopal cactus and how to deal with the gnarly spines of both the pads and fruit. For using the fruit in juices or marmalades, she suggests wearing gloves that go up to your elbows.
Without removing the spines, put the ripe prickly pear fruit through a juicer whole and strain it as the seeds are also a concern— they are so hard they can break a tooth if they are passed on to the finished product.
A big-time local producer of prickly pears is Salinas-based D’Arrigo Brothers, packing under the Andy Boy label. The D’Arrigo fruits are sold under the name cactus pears, perhaps to help consumers forget the spines, which are removed with a special machine, leaving no trace of them on the fruit. Founders of D’Arrigo Brothers came from Sicily, where 10,000 acres of prickly pears are in production.
Nopal cactus pads are eaten when they have new, tender growth in the spring through summer. The fruit is harvested summer through fall. When harvesting, wear thick gloves and use tongs to hold the cactus pads or fruit. Choose 5- to 6-inch-long pads that are young, tender and light green in color. Cactus fruit must be picked when it is completely ripe and breaks off easily—otherwise, it won’t have the desired tart-sweet taste.
Experienced nopales connoisseurs use a sharp knife to cut off the skin and the spines, starting with the edges first. A novice should stick to using a paring or butter knife and scaling the spines off like you would a fish, or simply use a good quality potato peeler if you want to remove the skin as well. The edge of a metal measuring cup is one of the tools of choice for Dr. Manfred Warmuth, a UCSC computer science professor and member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, who cultivates about 20 different varieties at home in Santa Cruz.
The common magenta cactus fruit has a tart raspberry-bubble gum-watermelon flavor, but there are several varieties with flavor profiles ranging from super tart to custardy sweet or bitter. Some of these interesting varieties include: roja pelona, which has a kiwi-like flavor and is thorn free; cristalina aka zarca, crisp yet juicy with flavor like a white peach; and the naranjona, which has spicy notes with a honey sweetness and tastes a bit like a ripe persimmon.
Vicente Quintana of El Nopalito Produce sources nopales locally from farmers in Gonzales and Los Banos in summer and from Mexico the rest of the year. At the El Pajaro Kitchen Incubator in Watsonville, Quintana prepares three different sizes of ready-to-eat de-thorned paddles packed in 1-pound bags.
His pre-prepped nopales can be found at some Latino markets, including El Pueblo Market, Hernandez Markets and Chavez Supermarket chains. Quintana also supplies his co-worker in the Pajaro kitchen, Cesario Ruiz who owns My Mom’s Mole brand. Ruiz makes a healthy super food salad consisting of nopales and kale that is flying off the shelves in Santa Cruz at Staff of Life, Westside New Leaf and Corralitos Meat Market. (See recipe, p. 19.) Ruiz says the coolness of the salad complements his rich, spicy mole.
Mohammed Tabib at The Fish Hopper restaurant on Cannery Row uses nopales in a relish that he says is simple and delicious on top of fish or chicken. Using olive oil he coats and roasts the whole pads along with red and yellow bell peppers and ears of corn until they have grill marks on them. The grilled vegetables are diced and tossed with corn kernels, more olive oil, lime juice, and salt and pepper.
Hallcrest Vineyards in Felton makes a 15- barrel batch of prickly pear hard cider each summer, sourcing organic prickly pear fruit from Prevedelli Farms in Corralitos. Proprietor John Schumacher chops the fruit and tosses it in with the apple juice and the perfect amount of Thai chile peppers before fermenting. His Prickly Pear hard cider is on tap at local breweries; Schumacher is also considering bottling it for retail this season, so keep your eyes peeled for it at specialty brew shops this fall.
Nicole Todd’s Santa Cruz Cider Co. has also been known to brew using prickly pears and usually serves the tangy drink at the annual Twisted Tasting event in Santa Cruz.
GROW IT YOURSELF
Nopales are easily propagated by cutting an existing cactus pad off a mature plant. Be sure to use a sharp, clean knife and cut a mature pad, one that is at least six months old. Keep the cutting in a well-ventilated area until it forms a firm callus where you cut it, which will take about two weeks. If the pad isn’t completely healed over, it could rot once it is planted. Fill a planting container (with adequate drain holes) with equal parts garden soil and coarse sand. Place the pad upright, about 1 inch deep in the soil, and use a stick or rock to hold it upright until the roots grow. Don’t add water for about a month—the succulent pad has enough to sustain itself until its roots are established. Or you can simply stick a cutting in the ground in the spring or summer when the ground is dry and remember to water it in a month or so. Cacti are like weeds—they can grow in the most unforgiving locations with few inputs and can survive on the rain that Mother Nature provides.
However, the more water they receive, the better they grow. If you want to increase the nopal pads, use a high-nitrogen fertilizer. But if flowers and pears are your preference, increase the potassium. Nopales like full sun, and often are planted on the perimeters of properties, making a thorny fence. They also can help control erosion on hillsides.
Nopales pads and fruit are low in calories and high in fiber, vital phytochemicals and antioxidants. Their sticky juices contain polysaccharides that reduce LDL cholesterol and blood sugar levels and aid in digestion. They are also an immune booster and have anti-inflammatory properties, and are an excellent source of magnesium—a mineral in which many people are deficient. The pads also contain moderate amounts of vitamin A which protects against skin and lung cancers. The magenta fruit contains sublime amounts of vitamin C and has been a headache and hangover remedy for hundreds of years.
My Mom’s Mole’s Ruiz says his father makes a shake containing nopal paddles to help regulate his blood sugar every morning; he does not feel so well when he misses it.
Some things to make with fresh, velvety prickly pears:
- Salad dressing: add the prickly pear juice to sherry vinegar, olive oil and shallots.
- Fruit tarts: skin and slice into thin pieces, tossing with lime juice and sugar.
- Salads: try chopping in small chunks and tossing with shredded chicken, pepitas and cilantro.
- Hydrating drinks: mix prickly pear juice and some bubbly water for the kids; add ice, lime juice and vodka for the adults.
Cooking with nopal paddles
Nopal cactus pads have a lemony flavor and like okra, contain a somewhat slimy liquid. To reduce this, try brining skinned pieces in salt water, 1 cup of salt to 1 gallon of water. This will pull some of the gooey stuff from the meat. Or simply boil for 3 minutes in salted water then remove from heat and let them steep for another 3 minutes, drain then cool.
Here are some preparation ideas:
- Fry them in duck or bacon fat with onions and garlic then scramble with eggs for a tasty breakfast burrito.
- Make a quick pickle using apple cider vinegar; store in the refrigerator.
- Coat with olive oil and salt and roast on the barbecue or in the oven. If desired, first score the skin with a knife, or cut the paddle into a fan of strips still connected at the base. (This will help the sticky juices cook off.)
- Add chopped nopales (first roasted or boiled, if desired) to tacos, salads or stews.
If you are new to nopales and want to submerge yourself in their culture, attend the 6th annual Festival del Nopal in Santa Cruz on Sunday, July 24 in the downtown farmers’ market parking lot on Lincoln Street. Proceeds will fund youth scholarships and local nonprofits. There will be cooking contests, traditional music and many variations of both nopales and prickly pear dishes to try.
I plan to attend to taste the less common prickly pear fruit and locate some cuttings to propagate on my farm!
Jamie Collins is owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, U-picks and farmers’ markets.
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
JUNE, JULY AND AUGUST
Fruit: *Apples • ****Apricots • Avocados • Blackberries • ****Blueberries • *Boysenberries • Cactus Pears • **Cherries • Figs • ***Grapes • Lemons • **Loquats • ***Melons • Nectarines • Olallieberries • Oranges • Peaches • ***Pears • Plums • Raspberries • Strawberries • Tayberries
Vegetables: **Artichokes • Arugula • **Asparagus • Basil • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Corn • Cress • Cucumber • Dandelion • Eggplant • Endive • Fava Beans • Fennel • Garlic • Green Beans • Kale • Leeks • Lettuces • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Onions • Peas • ***Peppers, Bell • Potatoes • Radishes • Spinach • Summer Squash • Tomatoes • Turnips
Seafood: Abalone • Crab, Dungeness • Halibut, California • Lingcod Mackerel • Rock Cod (aka Snapper, Rockfish) • Sablefish (aka Black Cod) • Salmon, Chinook/King • Seabass, White • Sole (Dover, Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Squid, Market • Tuna (Albacore, Bonito)
*comes into season in June
**ends in June
***comes into season in July
****comes into season in August
*****goes out of season in July
Notes: No notation on fruits and vegetables means the crop is available the duration of June, July and August. Only seafood that is local and considered sustainable by Seafood Watch or FishWise is listed under seafood.
Research assistance from Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms.