The culinary cactus

October 7, 2003 in Food Companies, Manufacturing and Trends

The culinary cactus

Cacti are one of the first things you become aware of when arriving in Arizona. What is not obvious is that they are more than landscape ornaments.

For centuries people in the Americas have harvested cactus, de-spining the fruit, called tuna, and the paddlelike nopales. They've chopped up the leaves into nopalitos for salads and stews, and used the fruit's juice for drinks and candy.

Lately, prickly pear in all its guises is showing up on restaurant menus around the country. “We're moving beyond the burrito,” said Jeff Smedstad, owner of Los Sombreros restaurant in Scottsdale. ‘"here is a lot of ignorance about regional food and people moved away from what they considered peasant food, such as nopales. Now people are rediscovering the charms of those things and the simplicity. Suddenly people realized, “Hey this great vegetable grows right in my own backyard.”

There are many varieties of prickly pear cactus and the flavors are as varied as the plants, notes Patrick Quick, cactus horticulturalist for The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. “And not only are some species more tasty than others, but sometimes a plant down the road is more tasty than another,” he said.

The inside of the cactus is gooey - somewhat like an aloe vera plant - and grilling or sautéing is the best way to cook it. “You want them crisp, like any vegetable,” Mr. Smedstad said. Once grilled, the nopales are chopped and added to salsa, scrambled eggs, quesadillas, salads and other dishes.

Although the pads and fruit can be eaten raw, their flavor is enhanced by cooking. “They have this okra-y thing going on,” Mr. Smedstad said of the nopales' taste and reputation as a vegetable. Other people say they taste like green beans, but they readily absorb the flavors they are mixed with. Beware though - cooking cactus should be done by professionals or after a cooking lesson

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