Carolyn's Guide to Prickly Pear Pads

When I moved in to my current house, I was excited to see the variety of native and desert adapted plants already growing. I decided this would be a good opportunity to eat prickly pear pads (nopales in Spanish) for the first time. I found some great information online at the Desert Harvesters website of how to harvest and prepare the pads. For the more visually inclined, I made a video showing how to harvest and clean the pads with a few recipes too!

 

Health Benefits

Prickly pear pads are high in vitamins A and C, fiber, calcium and other trace minerals. They have been used for many digestive ailments. The sap is similar to that of aloe and can be used to treat skin injuries like burns and cuts. You can even use it as a hair conditioner! The most exciting benefit is how eating the pads can regulate blood glucose levels; very important for diabetics.

Wild Edibles

Prickly pear grow wild all over the desert southwest as well as Mexico and will grow just fine in other arid and semi-arid regions. Knowing how to eat wild edibles is your area gives a sense of food security if SHTF, but they also provide a great source of nutrition as the plant is living in its preferred state and environment. They don't need the support of human gardeners to amend the soil and supplement with water (also great for water-scarce areas.)

Laws

Take note there are laws that vary from state to state about harvesting plants or fruits from public lands. Also keep in mind trespassing and stealing ramifications if you are on private land. 

Harvesting 

Prickly pear pads must be harvested in the Spring or Summer Monsoon Season when they are new. Older pads are much too fiberous. The new pads can be identified by their brighter color and rubbery looking spines where the glochids are. 

You'll want to use smooth tongs (don't use silicon or else you'll just transfer all the stickers from the pad to your tongs.) You could also use heavy gloves, but then risk stickers in your gloves. Once you've got ahold of the pad, just cut it off at the base with a sharp knife.

 Freshly harvested prickly pear pads (nopales)

Freshly harvested prickly pear pads (nopales)

Cleaning

I then use a fillet knife to cut the glochids off and the stem and the outer edge (reference my video.) Then rinse in the sink and you're ready to eat or cook. There are several ways to eat: raw, sautéed, grilled, baked, dried, pickled or boiled. I wouldn't recommend boiling and draining the water as you are dumping a lot of the nutrients down the drain with the water. (This goes for any vegetable, unless you are trying to eliminate anti-nutrients like oxalates and phytates.)

 Using a fillet knife to cut the glochids off as well as trim the outer edge and stem end of the pad

Using a fillet knife to cut the glochids off as well as trim the outer edge and stem end of the pad

Recipes

There are many recipes to choose from. Here are a couple of my favorites. I have adapted some of these from Carolyn Niethammer's book Cooking The Wild Southwest, a fun read with tasty recipes and tips on how to incorporate wild edibles of the Desert Southwest into your diet. I also have a video showing preparation of some of these for your viewing pleasure.

Grilled Nopales

Lightly oil cleaned pad and grill, turning occasionally for about 20 minutes, until olive green.

 Grilled Nopal

Grilled Nopal

Dried Prickly Pear Bites

Dice cleaned prickly pear pads and toss with a tsp of oil and spread out on a cookie sheet. Bake at 375º F for 20 minutes. 

 Kid-approved dried prickly pear bites

Kid-approved dried prickly pear bites

Prickly Pear Carrot Salad

  • 4 cups shredded carrots
  • 2 cups pineapple, crushed or small dice
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup dried prickly pear bites
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise 

Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving to allow flavors to meld together. 

Cactus, Onion & Tomatoes

  • 1 cup diced prickly pear pads (~2 pads)
  • 1 cup onion, diced (~1/2 onion)
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 TBS minced garlic
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, jalapeño and garlic. Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly to keep the garlic from burning. Add prickly pear, cook 3 minutes while continuing to stir occasionally. Add tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper. This makes a great side dish for some grilled chicken.

 Cactus, onions and tomatoes

Cactus, onions and tomatoes

Growing

Prickly pear are easy to grow as they don't need any extra water or care. You can propagate them by cutting a pad off an established plant and burying it halfway in the ground elsewhere. The best time to do this is Spring and Summer while temperatures are warm. Cold weather may cause the cut pad to rot. They can also be started by seed.

What is your favorite recipe using wild edibles? Let me know in the comments!

With love, hugs and smiles,

Carolyn