With freezing temperatures across the Sacramento Valley it’s easy to forget about the sun-loving cactus. But the cactus, just like all the other plants of the desert, can endure both scorching heat and freezing cold. The nopales cactus, mother of the prickly pear, will continue to thrive in this weather and can help you thrive too. This cactus is likely in yours or a neighbors’ back yard and is ready and willing to provide you with a hearty satisfying meal.
The nopales cactus has large flat leaves, oval shaped and covered with stickers. The edible portion is the young leaves, usually sprouting from the bottom of the plant. They are thinner and more delicate, making them perfect for eating.
Now, before putting anything in your mouth, it’s important to remove the thorns! (I know, it seems obvious.) A little known trick for harvesting the nopales is this: a stick lighter! Carefully approach the cactus (watch your head!), visually select the leaf you wish to eat and use the stick lighter to burn off the thorns. Don’t worry, the lighter won’t burn hot enough to hurt the greenery, but the flame will eat away the thorns making the leaf safe to pick and eat. For this recipe you will need about three or four leaves. As always, perfection is not required. I use clippers to remove the leaves from the cactus by cutting at the base. Twisting also works, if you aren’t afraid of getting too close.
Seem like too much trouble? Well, perhaps the health benefits will change your mind. It’s almost easier to list what the nopal doesn’t cure. Nopal helps regulate high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and triglycerides. It controls gastric acids, easing digestion and the flare-up of ulcers. Particularly important in the winter, the nopal is great for boosting immunity. I think its greatest health benefit is its anti-inflammatory properties which protect the heart but also the joints, which suffer more in the cold weather. Nopal is also purported to be an excellent hangover cure–so now you know. Want some?
My recipe is a cactus chili that can be prepared in a large quantity and frozen and eaten as time or hangover presents itself.
Nopales Cactus Chili:
- 4 young, thorn free, nopales leaves, chopped
- 3 16-oz cans of pinto beans, rinsed
- 2 16-oz cans stewed tomatoes
- 1 pound ground turkey (or more beans for a vegetarian dish)
- salt, pepper, chili powder, to taste (I like about 3tbsp of each)
- 1 very hot slice of jalapeno (optional)
- slice the nopales longways then shortways, dividing them into small cubes
- rinse the pinto beans before including them in the dish, to remove excess salt
- in a LARGE pot, brown the turkey meat on medium heat
- add the nopales, beans, and tomatoes to the browned meat and mix
- allow the mixture to simmer for about 10 minutes before adding the spices and jalapeno
- let the complete mixture simmer for about 30 minutes, then taste and adjust spice as neccesary. If it’s too spicy, pull out the jalapeno and/or add some tomato sauce (about 1/2 cup).
- the chili is done once it cooks down and thickens. this can take 60 to 90 minutes. the longer the cook time, the more integrated the flavor.
- enjoy. freeze excess in glass jars to enjoy later.