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Cactus: It's Good for You!
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Barton Stacy and Armida Beruman
Put away all those fibrous bran cereals and pull out the cactus. When most people think of the cactus with its sharp stickers, they rarely think of it as an edible fruit or vegetable. However, the facts are that when rid of their stickers and thick outer skin, cactus may be eaten as an excellent source of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Protected by federal law, most cacti are now on the endangered species list as more and more desert land is developed and their natural environment is destroyed. They also have fallen victim to overgrazing by cattle in the West. Cactus is a very slow growing plant, often taking decades to increase in size. A cactus thus destroyed through development, overgrazing or vandalism represents years of desert survival wasted. Today, however, cacti are grown commercially for consumption and are available in many grocery stores.
Archeological evidence, as well as the lack of foods available in the arid Arizona desert, suggests that the Mesa Grande Indians were the first to prepare and eat cactus. Once the Spaniards arrived, the Indians introduced them to the fruit of the prickly pear, the red pear-shaped growth on top of the pads. The Spanish referred to the fruit as higuera de los Indios, or fig of the Indians.
The prickly pear will produce fruit for up to three years without the benefit of one drop of rainfall. The parts of the cactus plant used most are the fruit and the inner pulp. The fruit of the prickly pear are often referred to as tunas. Cabeza de Vaca first reported that Indians of the Texas deserts depended on the tuna, often traveling great distances to enjoy the sweet fruit. Some tribes made a sweet preserve from the tunas while others made a soup from seeds or dried and ground them into flour.
Today, the most commonly eaten cactus is still the prickly pear. The fruit is cut vertically; the skin peeled off, the sweet inside pulp eaten. This is considered one of the most delicious of all cactus fruit. A sweet red syrup to add to cold drinks can be made by boiling the juice of the prickly pear fruit. The juice also can be made into a jelly.
The fleshy pads of the prickly pear are known as nopales or nopalitos, and they can be prepared in many ways like a green vegetable. In Mexico it is not unusual to see a women selling nopales in outdoor markets. Nopales are available in the produce section of many local stores in El Paso.
Nopalitos can be eaten raw in a green salad or cooked. Revoltijos and nopalitos con queso are two traditional dishes that are prepared with the prickly pear. Revoltijos is traditionally served during Lent and is prepared with potatoes, shrimp and nopalitos cooked in a red mole or chile sauce. Nopalitos con queso is a mixture of nopalitos, onions and fried chiles sprinkled with cheese. Nopalitos can even be cooked with scrambled eggs for a different flavor for breakfast.
The inner portion of the cactus is made up of a fleshy green fiber. This fiber, found inside of the prickly pear and other types of cactus such as the agave, consists mostly of stored water.
The agave cactus is composed of many large blades with a single stalk growing up from the center. Each blade contains the edible inner green pulp. The juice pulp must be boiled in water and lemon juice, forming pectin, before the cactus can be prepared in various dishes. The jelled pulp can be cut into strips to add to a tossed salad, or the strips can be boiled a little longer and eaten like green beans.
Tequila is made from the pulp of the agave cactus. The Indians were the first to prepare this alcoholic beverage from the pulp. The inner portions of the agave were dried, roasted and soaked in water then fermented. This technique is still used today in preparing the popular alcoholic drink.
Cactus is an excellent source of nutrients. Like other green vegetable, the prickly pear is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and low in calories. The great amount of fiber can help break down and regulate sugar intake and also aid digestion. The agave is also very high in vitamins and provides calcium. The agave is very high in calories, however.
A small number of commercial growers along the border grow cactus to be shipped to gourmet spots in New York and other areas. However, a major portion of the cactus crops is sold here on the border.
Cactus is harvested between mid-August and October when the leaves of the cactus are young and most tender. The harvesting must be done by hand because no machine has been designed to do this delicate work. The fruits and leaves are then cleaned of all needles and stickers. Some are so small that they are not visible to the naked eye. Once the cactus is ready to be shipped, it is wrapped in tissue paper and distributed to its buyers.
An endangered species, cactus is unique to the border area and the culture it symbolizes. So the next time you are in the produce section of the grocery store, don't just pass by the cactus. Take advantage of all the benefits this desert plant has to offer.