Foraging for Prickly Pears and Scrambled Eggs with Nopales Recipe
Prickly pear cactus is most famous for its edible fruits, sometimes called “tunas” or sabras. But its green pads are also edible and delicious in the nopales recipe below.
I love prickly pear fruit and have a video about working with it here. But this post is all about the nopales, the edible green pads of prickly pear cacti. Notice that one young paddle in the picture below is a much brighter green than its older, thicker, supporting players? That’s what you’re looking for.
Prickly pears (cacti in the Opuntia genus) grow in many regions worldwide. Native to the Americas, they have been introduced to other parts of the world including Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia. They are cold-tolerant and often thrive in places where people don’t expect to see cacti growing (like in the Northeast of North America). Look for them in full sun in rocky or sandy soil.
How to Identify
Opuntia cacti have flat, paddle-shaped stem sections called cladodes (they are not “cactus leaves,” although you will often see them referred to that way). The younger, lighter green cladodes grow on top of the fleshier, dingier older ones. It’s those young paddles that are eaten as the vegetable known as nopales or nopalitos.
The edges and flat surfaces of both young and old paddles have spots of very small, easily detachable spines called glochids. It’s these glochids — more than the sometimes present large spines — that can get into your skin and cause discomfort for days.
Prickly pear’s cup-shaped flowers are usually yellow, but sometimes pink or white.
The fleshy fruits have numerous common names including “tunas” and in Israel, sabras. They grow directly out of the edges of the paddles. They are oblong, with a round crater at one end. The fruit may be red, orange, yellow, or even green when ripe. The color of the juicy pulp inside also varies from species to species, sometimes orange, sometimes a striking magenta color. Each fruit contains numerous seeds.
How to Harvest
Harvesting prickly pears can be challenging — they’re called “prickly” for a reason! It’s not so much the actual spines that you have to watch out for as much as the much smaller, hairlike prickles called glochids that are nestled around the bases of the spines. Get these under your skin, and you’ll be uncomfortable for days (to put it mildly). My technique for harvesting the fruits barehanded (well, sort of) is here.
To harvest the paddles, or nopales, look for those at the top of the cacti that are 8 inches or less in length and fairly thin. They will be a much lighter and brighter green than the older, thicker paddles. There should be no paddles growing from them (in other words, you’re harvesting the ones that are at the end of their “branch”). There should also be no fruits growing from them. Older, thicker pads tend to be both stringy and flabby — not textures I find appealing in food!
Gloves will not protect you sufficiently from this harvest’s bite. Instead, here are two ways to gather the nopales. You can simply hold an open, solid container under or alongside the paddle you’re after and use scissors or garden pruners cut it off at the base so that it falls into your container.
A second method is to fold a piece of cardboard in half and use it to surround and hold the paddle while you use your other hand to cut off the base.
Prickly pears are considered invasive in Australia and in Mediterranean countries. You are definitely not harming the plant by collecting the “tunas” or a few of the younger paddles for nopales.
How to Eat
Obviously, you need to get rid of the spines and pesky glochids before eating prickly pear fruit or nopales. Wearing gloves for this process may or may not protect you, but it can’t hurt.
For nopales, use tongs or a folded piece of cardboard or really thick gloves to grasp one side of the paddle while with your other hand you use a sharp paring knife to scrape both flat sides. You want to remove the spines, but do keep as much of the nopale’s green skin as possible because it improves the texture of the cooked vegetable. Here’s a video that shows how to scrape the spines and glochids off of a prickly pear paddle.
Once you have removed the spines by scraping the flat sides, trim off the edges all the way around. For extra insurance, hold each paddle with tongs and hold it over a flame such as that of a gas stove to burn off any remaining glochids. Rinse the paddle under cold water.
Nopales have a crisp-tender texture when harvested at the young stage I describe above. But they can be slimy if not prepared correctly. I recommend pre-boiling and rinsing nopales, even if you will be using another cooking method (deep frying, grilling, stir-frying) for them afterward. This gets rid of a lot of the sliminess. To do this, first cut them into strips or small pieces. Boil them in salted water for 15 minutes, then drain well. Rinse under cool water for a couple of minutes. If the recipe calls for boiled nopales, you probably won’t need to reboil them for more than another 5 minutes.
Eggs and Nopales Recipe with Salsa Verde
Scrambled eggs are a traditional vehicle for nopales, and the two together have a great texture and mild flavor. The salsa verde brings intense flavor to the party.
8 nopales, glochids and any spines removed using the method above
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
2 tablespoons capers
4 anchovy fillets, chopped (optional)
1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste for the salsa)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
6 eggs, beaten
- Cut the nopales into 1/4-inch wide strips. Put the salt in a large pot of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the nopales strips and boil for 15 minutes. Drain in a colander, then rinse well under cool water.
- While the nopales are boiling, prepare the salsa verde: You can finely chop all of the herbs by hand, or pulse all of the ingredients together in a blender or food processor.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet. Chop the nopales strips into 1/2 to 1-inch pieces and add them to the pan with the onion. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onions start to caramelize and the nopales are tender and most of their liquid has evaporated.
- Reduce the heat to low and add the eggs. Cook, stirring constantly, until the eggs are set but still on the soft side (the texture will be better if you resist the urge to crank the heat). Spoon the salsa verde over the top or serve it on the side.
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The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles is part field guide covering 50 plants, mushrooms, and seaweeds with a widespread distribution, and part cookbook for turning these wild edibles into delectable dishes.
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