Nopales: I’m Gonna Eat CACTUS?

The prickly pear cactus is nothing to laugh at. It has both long and small spines, and the small ones hurt just as much as the long ones. In some areas around Phoenix, the cactus serves as a natural fence–better than razor wire–to protect road-building equipment.prickly pear cactus

And then I read that people eat this stuff. “Right,” I muttered, “and they wash it down with nice broken glass. Prickly Pear, when prepared, creates something wonderful called “Nopales” (which means cactus in Spanish), or more often, Nopalitos, a great snack food.

The broad flat leaves of the prickly pear cactus and the stems are edible. So is the fruit, which is often turned into jelly and a gum-drop like candy.

The leaves are cut and the spines pulled out. Then the eyes of spines are removed. After that, the cactus is cut into small, regular pieces. Most people cook them. Ugh. Not me. There is a strong okra-reactions when cooked. When left raw, they taste almost exactly like raw green beans sprinkled with lemon juice. Much better. No slime. You can also grill them, which avoids the problem and adds a nice smoky taste.

nopales in panThe best news is that nopales are sold in Mexican markets, cut up, cleaned and ready to use.

Yesterday, I experimented with some preparation ideas. I found the best way to prepare them raw was to marinate them. Use any of the marinates below, soak them for about an hour, drain the marinade (don’t rinse) and serve with toothpicks for stabbing and eating.

Marinades for Nopales

  • The easiest (though not the best) is bottled Italian dressing. Cover, soak for an hour or 2, drain, serve.
  • Mix dark sesame oil and rice wine vinegar (twice as much vinegar) to make a tart marinate. Cover, etc.
  • Drain a jar of pickles, use the juice as a marinade. Cover, etc.
  • Pour a jar of sweet pickle relish (hot dog relish) over the nopales. Cover, etc.
  • Mix a cup of raspberry vinegar with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add a dollop of raspberry jam, and a shot of hot pepper sauce or a few grinds of tellicherry pepper.
  • Pour a bottle of salsa (Spicy is good) over the nopales and marinate. Do not drain. Eat with chips.

Don’t miss this great treat. Enjoy!

Imagees: prickly pear cactus: nopales in pan:,

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who likes to cook. She’s married to a personal chef, and together they make great calories together. Quinn is also a writer and artist. See her work at

Snack attack

For the last three nights, I have had snack attacks late at night. After 10 p.m. No idea why, but I find myself peering into the pantry or fridge, hunting for the perfect nosh. Fresh blackberries? Nope. Mango? Nope. Snacks need to fall into the snack-food scope: salty, crunchy, sweet or chewy. Must be empty calories or it doesn’t count.

Here’s what’s tempted me successfully:

Peanut Butter filled pretzels. Satan invented these. They make a pleasant hollow sound, just to remind you that the peanut butter is encapsulated in some scary way. But they are crunchy, salty and sweet. 8 points on the late-night snackometer.

Pirate Booty. Yep, from Trader Joe’s. Crunchy, with a slight plastic aftertaste. Artificially cheezy and perfect. Odd mouthfeel of salt, and felty-cheese. 6 points on the late-night snackometer.

images.jpgBaked Snap Pea Crisps. Must be healthy for you–vegetables, right? These come in a metallized single-serving plastic bag. That means you can’t stop eating the.  Ignore the grease stains on your fingers. Absolute heaven in the crunch-salt-snap category. 10 points on the late-night snackometer.

Seedy little current cookies. Also from Trader Joe’s. An odd, plasticized-looking, slippery little cookie made of pressed seeds and currents.  For my money, they could have left out the peanuts and used hazelnuts instead. But it doesn’t slow me down much. 7 points on the late-night snackometer.

San Juan Cajeta. I discovered these at the Rancho Grande market. They are caramels, but pressed flat on obladen, an edible type of paper that keeps them from sticking to the wrapper and looks like a host. These caramels are made of goat milk and have a rich, creamy taste.  A definite 10 points.

What’s your latest snack attack?