There is more to the cactus plant than just a prickly house ornament to collect and admire. Studies reveal that cactus extract contains important phytochemicals, the cancer-fighting nutrient found in some fruits and vegetables, and also nutrients that strengthen the immune system.
Nature’s Most Perfect Food
Cactuses or cacti are drought-resistant plants found mostly in hot and dry regions. Cactus fruits are considered by some as “nature’s most perfect food”, with a large percentage of water, sugar, and minerals contained in the soft and gel-like flesh. The fruit performs a laxative function, increasing the frequency and ease of bowel movements. The gel extract is also used in some parts of the world as a remedy for non-insulin dependent diabetics.
Another experiment conducted on the wound-healing properties of cactus juice produced a positive effect. Cactus juice prevents scar forming and inflammation of the wounded area. The results of the experiment also show that cactus also improves circulation and wound healing.
A popular edible cactus is known as nopales or cactus pads. Nopales are the fleshy oval leaves of the nopal or prickly pear cactus. This vegetable is popular in Mexico and other Central American countries. Its popularity is increasing in the United States where it can be found at Mexican grocery stores, specialty produce markets and farmer’s markets. With a soft but crunchy texture that becomes a bit sticky (not unlike okra) when cooked, nopales taste similar to a slightly tart green bean, asparagus, or green pepper. Food value? Nopales contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.
Availability, Selection, and Storage
Nopales are available year-round with a peak in the mid-spring and the best season from early spring through late fall. When buying, select small, firm, pale green cacti with no wrinkling. Be sure to pick cacti that are not limp or dry. Nopales can be refrigerated for more than a week if wrapped tightly in plastic.
Trim off spines or prickers with a vegetable peeler. Trim off any dry or fibrous areas and rinse thoroughly to remove any stray prickers and sticky fluid. Nopales may be eaten raw or cooked. To cook, steam over boiling water for just a few minutes (if cooked too long they will lose their crunchy texture). Then slice and eat. Alternatively, sautèe in butter or oil for a few minutes. Steamed cactus can be added to scrambled eggs and omelets, or diced fresh and added to tortillas. They can also be substituted for any cooked green in most dishes. Nopales can be served as a side dish or cooled and used in salads. They taste especially good with Mexican recipes that include tomatoes, hot peppers and fresh corn.