NOPAL, The Desert Flower of Life
Updated: Feb 18
According to DesertUSA, Cactus is plant family native to the Americas which was later introduced to Europe, Africa and Australia. Very little is known about early cactus plants because only two cactus fossils have ever been found. The oldest, found in northern Aztlan (Utah), dates to 50 million years ago and was similar to today's prickly pear we call Nopal.
Although cactus are synonymous with desert regions, they are found in some unlikely places. In the lush, tropical regions of Mexico, South America and some Caribbean Islands, tall columnar cactus grow among hanging vines and large-leaved trees. One species grows at an elevation of 11,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada's.
Cactus owe their success in the desert to their structural adaptations. While other desert plants may have similar features such as spines and succulent stems, these evolutionary traits reach a zenith in the cactus. Cactus take advantage of the lightest rainfall by having roots close to the soil surface. The water is quickly collected by the roots and stored in thick, expandable stems for the long summer drought. The fleshy stems of the barrel cactus are pleated like an accordion and shrink as moisture is used up. These pleats also channel water to the base of the plant during rain showers.
Different varieties of cactus was used for food and medicinal purposes by Native Americans for thousands of years. The Cahuilla Indians spent the cooler months gathering wanted plants. They harvested the fruit of the cactus for its sweetness. The fruit was cooked in a pit with hot stones for at least 12 hours, and the large seeds were ground into a mush. When the flesh pads were young, they were cut into small pieces, boiled and served as greens.
Native women used gathering sticks to harvest the buds of barrel cactus to prevent being injured by the sharp spines. Usually these buds were parboiled several times to remove the bitter flavor before they were eaten. The buckhorn cholla was used medicinally by the Cahuilla people. The stems were burned, and the ashes were applied to cuts and burns to aid in the healing process.
As a healing agent, nopal use is similar to the Aloe Vera, a succulent plant, which shouldn't be confused with Nopal, a cactus. Unlike nopal, Aloe Vera originated in the Sudan, Egypt, Africa and India. We will discuss it's benefits another time. https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcseriesblog/2015/02/26/history-aloe-vera-arabian-desert-cream-use-hands/
The prickly pear plant (nopal or "nopalitos" in Spanish) and the prickly pear fruit (known as "tuna" in Spanish) is an edible nutritious and delicious food offering vitamins, minerals and medicinal properties. There has been much medical interest in the Prickly Pear plant. Studies have shown that the pectin contained in the Prickly Pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lower diabetics' need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar levels stable.
Prickly pear extract has also been shown to reduce the severity and occurrence of hangovers if taken in advance of drinking. But if you are drinking Tequilla, I'm not sure if ingesting more cactus is advisable! You be the judge and jury on that question.
Besides, tequila is made from the agave plant, a succulent plant family member, not to be confused with Nopal.
Tequila is a distillate of the blue agave, one of over 200 strains of this family of desert lilies which grow across Mexico. There's a popular myth - purochisme - that tequila comes from cacti, but the agave has strong historical and mythical powers which have made the drink so legendary. In fact, I'm having flashbacks just writing about it! We'll have a longer discussion about the health benefits of tequila another day. For now, let's finish up with the Nopal story.
HARVEST PADS: Harvest the nopal pads, in early spring or after rains when pads are new. They will have small, pointed succulent or rubbery nubs that will eventually become spines. Hold the pad (wear gloves) with kitchen tongs and cut the base of the pad from the cactus.
PROCESS PADS: With a sharp kitchen knife, scrape off the espinas (the stickers), which are still soft and rubbery at this young stage. The pads can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
EAT PADS: The young tender Prickly Pear pads are equally as delicious as the fruit (after you cook them with delicious ingredients). They are high in vitamins A and C and calcium. This low-carb food can help decrease blood glucose levels, which makes it a recommended food for diabetics. Prickly Pear pads make delicious additions to salads, egg dishes, and red chile (I can taste the burritos now!). They have a slight tangy or lemony taste, the stickiness of okra, and consistency similar to cooked green beans.
When you are ready to cook the pads, use a knife or the tip of a vegetable peeler cut or scoop out the spines on the flat part of the pad. (You can also do this before storing them.) Rinse the pad under cool water and then cut in strips or cubes which can be sautéed or boiled (Look at the picture below, pues!). Or place them right on the grill until they are soft and browned, or slightly charred on the outside!
NOTE: Nopales produce a gummy, healthy juice when cut. Cooking the pads will help reduce this mucilaginous (Like mocos) quality. Be careful not to overcook them, as that can increase the gumminess. Pay attention to their consistency and experiment!
HARVEST FRUIT: Look for Prickly Pear fruits, or tunas, as they’re called in Spanish, that are dark red or purple in color (Humm...which one could it be in the picture below?).
August and September tend to be the season. Using tongs, simply pluck the fruit from the nopal pad. They should come off easily. The fine hairs on the surfaces of both the fruit and the pads are called glochids—they stick and prick, and tend to burn for days, so you might consider wearing gloves. I use a bristled hand brush or broom to clean the espinas before taking them inside the house.
PROCESS FRUIT: Wash the fruit by placing it in a sink full of cool water and swishing it around with a large spoon. Then place whole fruits into a blender or food processor. Blend to make a slurry. Strain the slurry though a pillow case, fine mesh strainer or a colander lined with cloth. We recommend using a clean, old t-shirt or pillow case rather than cheese cloth. Use a spoon to press the juice from the seeds and skins. Let the strained juice settle. Gently pour the juice off the top, leaving most of the sediment behind. Freeze prickly pear juice in ice cube trays then transfer to airtight freezer storage bags. Or better yet, just cut them into cubes and eat them!
Much thanks to Desert Harvesters for all the information provided in this story.
LET'S MAKE A NOPALITO DISH
2 Cups of Nopales
One-half Yellow Onion
2 Cloves of Garlic (Diced)
1 Large Tomato (Diced)
1 0r 2 chopped Serrano Peppers
Cilantro as garnish or chopped up-use only one-third of a bunch.
1. Heat oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Grape seed oil works best, but sunflower or safflower is ok too.
2. Once hot, add the onion and chiles, saute for a couple of minutes or until it starts to look transparent.
3. Stir in the garlic cloves and cook for about one minute.
4. Add chopped tomato and cook for about 2-3 minutes; by this time the tomatoes will start releasing their juices.
5. Finally, stir in the Nopale’s and the cilantro.
6. Let it cook for another 5 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Add poquito aqua, if the sauce is too dry. Season with salt and pepper and/or lemon squirt, to taste.
Serve with warm corn tortillas (Perferably, hechos de mano). Or scramble some eggs with the dish and make burritos! Enjoy!
Gracias to Mexico-in-my-Kitchen for the recipe pictures y "La Nariz" Family Recipes for the ingredient suggestions.