This is part of a series where we discuss a special ingredient and how it can be used in the kitchen.
If I learned anything from Looney Toons cartoons, it’s that cacti are not to be touched, much less eaten. That is unless we’re talking about nopales, which are paddle-shaped leaves from the opuntia cacti, the same plant that produces the prickly pear. You might think it strange to eat a piece of cactus, but nopales have been consumed for centuries in Mexico since before the Spanish Conquest and were even brought to Spain and cultivated throughout the Mediterranean. Seeing as how I had heard so much about this interesting prickly vegetable, I decided it was time to try it myself.
I was able to find nopales at my regular grocery store near the ethnic/seasonal produce, but you’ll find an abundance of it at a Mexican grocery or a farmer’s market. They can usually be bought whole with the spines intact, but sometimes you might find them chopped and cleaned with the spines removed. They’re technically in season all year because they’re drought-proof (you know, being a cactus and all), but they’ll be extra juicy and flavorful during the springtime. Nopales look exactly how you might imagine a cactus leaf to look – they’re a vibrant green color with prickly spines all over and are shaped like a ping pong paddle. Be careful when picking your nopales – those spines look harmless, but I had a hard time getting them off my fingers when I came home! I even used a gardening glove when cleaning them to avoid getting stuck with the tiny needles.
In terms of taste, nopales have a slightly tangy taste that’s similar to green beans, so they’re often added to soups (sopa de nopal), grilled with salt and pepper (nopal asado), or combined with other vegetables in a salad (ensalada de nopales). Interestingly, it’s also a common ingredient in green smoothies because of its purported health benefits. High in soluble fiber and pectin, it can aid in digestion and create a feeling of fullness (for those who are trying to lose weight). It’s also been proven to decrease blood glucose levels, lower LDL cholesterol, and control diabetes.
I figure it’s never too late to start eating healthier, so I gave the nopal green smoothie a try. The result was a soothing, slightly peppery smoothie that was offset by the pineapple and honey that I added for extra sweetness. I can’t promise you any miracles if you’re trying to get a last-minute summer beach bod, but I will say that this nopal smoothie did my tummy good and at least tasted healthy.
Nopal Cactus Smoothie (Yield: 1 smoothie)
¾ cup nopal, cleaned and chopped
1 cup orange juice
1 slice of pineapple
1 tablespoon honey
- Clean the nopal first by cutting lengthwise down the nopal leaf with a knife so that the bumps and spines are removed. Afterwards, cut around the nopal leaf, removing the stem and edges. Chop into small squares.
- Cut the apple and pineapple into smaller pieces. If you like, you can also peel the apple beforehand (but keep in mind that you’ll miss out on all the nutrients)
- Add the nopal, apple, pineapple, orange juice, and honey to a blender. Pulse in blender until combined. If you find it too fibrous, strain through a sieve to remove the fibrous bits (again, you’ll be missing out on all the nutrients). Pour into a glass and enjoy!