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Nopales, the Leaves of the Prickly Pear Cactus, are Nutritious Food
Prickly Pear Cactus From Prehistory to Today
Nopales is the leaf of the prickly pear cactus plant, which is native to Mexico, but has since spread to almost every continent. The leaves and fruit of this cactus plant are covered with two kinds of spines, and if the spines (especially the invisible ones) become lodged in your skin, they can be very painful. However, the delicious taste of nopales is something you will definitely want to try. Nopales taste a little like green beans, but otherwise not like anything else you have ever tried!
Natives of Mexico have been eating this plant since prehistory, and Spanish explorers brought the plant back with them, where it is now grown in many Mediterranean areas. The prickly pear cactus fruit is very popular in Europe. Every part of the plant except the roots can be eaten: the leaves as a vegetable; the fruits; and the seeds can be ground to make flour. The leaves (nopals) are especially thought to be useful in the management and treatment of diabetes. The nopals have a large amount of fiber and a low glycemic index.
Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cactus is extremely easy to grow once established. Simply take a leaf, or even just part of a leaf, bury the last inch of the leaf in moist dirt, and leave it to sprout (if you have ever grown a jade plant from a leaf, it's the same method). Keep the dirt moist but not wet. After a month or so, the leaf will form roots, and at that point, the cactus can be transplanted into your garden.
Harvest the young leaves before they grow eight inches long (leave plenty of leaves on the plant for photosynthesis). Although prickly pear grows slowly, if harvested judiciously, you will have a plant that can grow up to ten feet tall, and provide plenty of food with very little care. As with any cactus, make sure that you are protected: wear long sleeves and long pants, and heavy gloves. Those spines can really hurt you!
Tools for Harvesting and Handling Nopales
I use these heavy leather work gloves when harvesting or handling any part of the prickly pear cactus plant, either in the garden or in the kitchen.
When the prickly pear cactus leaves grow about eight to ten inches long, you can remove about ten per cent of the leaves of the plant per year. Although the prickly pear cactus plant is hardy, over-harvesting its leaves can kill your plant! (You can safely remove all the fruits from a prickly pear cactus plant, however, without worrying about damaging the plant.) Using a sharp knife, cut the leaves off at the base. Be sure to wear heavy leather gloves, handle the leaves with care, preferably with tongs, and use a pair of pliers to gently remove the spines. Remember that prickly pear cactus leaves will have both long spines and tiny, almost invisible spines, and those tiny spines are incredibly painful and extremly difficult to remove (I speak from personal experience!).
Peel the prickly pear cactus leaves to make sure you have removed all the spines. This is extremely important, as there are many very fine spines on the plant, and you will not want to get one of those lodged in your mouth as they are very painful!
Once the prickly pear cactus leaves are peeled, you can slice the leaves and use them as you would green beans. They are delicious with eggs, and they have a mucilaginous quality similar to okra that makes them ideal for thickening soups, stews, and sauces. The leaves can also be fried, stir-fried, or dipped in batter and made into fritters. Once you have tried nopales, you can be sure you will want it again!