I love trying new ingredients, especially when they are unique and fresh to a region. Currently, I’m living in La Paz, Mexico, and am in love with the fresh fruits and vegetables which can readily be found in supermercados (supermarkets), small local market stalls, farmer’s markets, and even convenience stores (OXXO is the most common corner store; similar to an American 7-11).
Unlike America, where a great deal of produce is picked and shipped in from other countries before it has fully matured, the most plentiful and popular Mexican produce is grown nearby and offered fully ripe. Cactus is in abundance and inexpensive.
Prickly pear cactus leaves have become a favorite ingredient of mine. They taste similar to a slightly tart green bean when eaten raw, and a bit like a green bell pepper when cooked. They produce a gelatinous substance when cut, not unlike okra. Some people find this slimy texture off-putting and it can be removed by cooking, which I prefer. It sounds weird, but by boiling the cactus with the husk of a tomatillo, the gel is absorbed into the husk and there is no slime! You can also cook out the gel by sauteing, which I do when adding to eggs, etc.
Most often you’ll find the leaves (called pads) with the needles removed. If not, gloves and a sharp knife are required to cut off the needles and outer vein. Look for smaller sized, firm pads and use within a few days or wrap tightly and refrigerate for up to two weeks. If they become limp, they are beyond their prime and will have lost their crunchiness but can still be used in soups until mold develops.
Cactus contains beta carotene, iron, B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium. Research has showed that it contains anti-viral and antioxidant properties, protects nerve cells, may reduce cholesterol and eliminate hangovers.
- Cactus adds a nice crunch to any salad, omelets or scrambled eggs, or even rice, as I recently tried. It can be used in soups or stews, but needs to be de-slimed first, so it should be added just before serving or the cactus will become soft (which is okay, too).
- Add some shrimp to the cold salad and it makes for a nice lunch. Or serve with tortilla chips for an appetizer.
- Sauteed with peppers and onions, cactus makes for a great vegetarian option for tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
- It can be pickled and candied apparently, which is on my list of future recipes.
- I’m a big fan of Mexican “sour” cream. It’s called “crema” and is not as thick or as tart as American sour cream. I put a dollop of it on just about every savory meal I make, including the cactus salad!
- 3 small or 2 medium cactus pads with needs and outer vein removed
- 1/2 t kosher salt
- 1 tomatillo with the husk removed
- 1-2 jalapeno peppers (depending on amount of heat you like), finely diced
- 2 roma tomatoes, chopped
- Handful of cilantro, roughly chopped (and a few sprigs for garnish); add amount to taste.
- Juice from 1 medium lime (about 2 T)
- 1/2 t cumin
- 1/2 t Tajin (optional)
- Crema (Mexican condiment cream) or sour cream (optional)
- Start at least an hour before you want to serve this, as he cactus will need time to cool.
- Rinse the cleaned cactus pads and then cut into 1/2 inch squares. Place the squares in a colander and let sit for a few minutes, then rinse again.
- Remove the husk from the tomatillo and set aside. Rinse and gently brush the waxy film off the tomatillo.
- Place the cactus squares, whole tomatillo, and husk in a small pot and 3 cups of water.
- Add salt and stir.
- Bring pot to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to keep it gently boiling for 10 minutes. (When the tomatillo splits at around 4 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.)
- Remove and toss the husk.
- Strain the cactus through a sieve and set aside to cool, then rinse again and put in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Dice the cooled tomatillo (It might be a bit mushy, and that’s okay).
- In a bowl, combine the diced tomatillo, cooled cactus, diced jalapenos, chopped tomatoes and cilantro.
- Add the lime juice and fold together.
- Add the cumin and Tajin and fold together.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Garnish just before service with a dollop of crema, cilantro sprigs and a sprinkle of Tajin.