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.Continue reading