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nopalesIf you’ve ever gone to the desert, you have likely come across the broad, thick, green appendages (nopales) of the prickly pear cactus, and the spiny rose, orange, purple, or yellow-coloured fruits (the prickly pears, or tunas) that sit atop.  You’ve likely never realized that almost all of this plant can be a delicious and nutritious addition to your diet, and an interesting item to add to the table.

Nopales are a great source of vitamin C and fibre, and the prickly pear fruit is a rich source of the mineral magnesium and the amino acid taurine, nutrients often cited as important to brain and heart health.  Studies have shown promise in lowering blood sugar in diabetics with the addition of nopales to the diet.  One study even showed that the extract from the skin of the prickly pear may prove useful in alleviating hangover symptoms!I wouldn’t recommend picking the pads or fruits on your own—the spines lodge into your skin with a vengeance and are difficult to remove.  Most Latin stores should have the de-spined versions of both the nopales and the tunas.  Nopales can be used on the grill and in stir-fries, salads, casseroles, soups, and any number of dishes.  They have a mild, green bean-esque flavour, and can also produce a similar slime to okra (which you can rinse off).  Prickly pears are best eaten fresh, if possible—they lose nutritional value rapidly once picked and can ferment as well.  They go well in jellies, jams, drinks, and other sweet treats.  Blend them with orange juice, bananas, ginger, ice, and soymilk for a great smoothie. 


-Native Americans used the Nopales to dress wounds and aid in the healing of bruises!
-In California, it is illegal to collect or pick fruit within 100 yards of a road or highway. It is also illegal to collect fruit that is growing on private property or property designated as a protected area, including a state or national park.

If picking these yourself, make sure you use proper hand protection (thick rubber gloves) or tongs.  You can remove the spines from the prickly pears by passing them through an open flame or shaking them in a bag of hot coals, or by peeling the skin off or cutting the spines off.  The spines of the nopales can be removed with a vegetable peeler or knife, and remove the thick stem and the edges off the pads.

Pick fruits and pads that are small to medium-sized and firm in texture.  Pass on wrinkled, soggy, or soft items. 

The pears should be eaten as soon as possible, and the nopales can be stored in the fridge in a plastic bag for up to a week—do not freeze.


1 cup raw nopales:

Calories:  60
Total fat:  1g
Saturated fat:  0g
Total carbohydrates:  14g
Dietary fiber:  5g
Protein:  1g
Vitamin C:  32% RDA
Calcium:  8% RDA
Iron:  2% RDA

8oz. raw prickly pear:
Calories:  40
Total fat:  1g
Saturated fat:  0g
Sodium:  25mg
Total carbohydrate:  8g
Dietary fiber:  2g
Sugars:  7g
Protein:  1g
Vitamin C:  25% RDA
Calcium:  6% RDA
Iron:  2% RDA
Magnesium:  32% RDA

Thanks to Desertusa.com for these prickly pear recipes: 

Prickly Pear Juice

Select ripe prickly pears, including a few on the green side to add pectin if making jelly. Wash and rinse. Place in a pot with 1 cup of water and cook over low heat until tender (about 20 minutes). Mash with a potato masher and strain to remove seeds and fibers.

Prickly Pear Jelly

4 cups prickly pear juice
5 cups sugar
2 package of powdered pectin

Follow the pectin manufacturer's directions for adding ingredients and fast boil, stirring constantly. Bring to a hard boil that cannot be stirred down, boil for 3 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars and seal.

Prickly Pear Salad Dressing

1/2 cup prickly pear puree
1/3 cup salad oil (not olive oil)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
3 to 4 Tbs. tarragon white wine vinegar

Shake all ingredients together in a covered jar. Makes about 1 cup . This pretty pink dressing is thin like an oil and vinegar dressing, but lower in calories. Good on fruit salads and tossed green salads.

Tofu Omelette With Nopales


17 ounces firm tofu
1 tablespoon tahini
2 tablespoons tamari
2-3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon oil
Equivalent of 1 nopale pad, diced
1 small sweet onion, diced
Any other omelette toppings you like

Sautee the nopales and onion in a hot pan sprayed with oil for about 5 minutes.  In a bowl, mash the tofu and mix with the other ingredients (excluding nopales and omelette toppings). Press batter in an oiled skillet (or non-stick pan). Cook on medium heat until brown on one side, then flip and brown on the other.  When ready to serve, fold nopales and toppings inside. 

Nopales Salad (thanks to Desertusa.com for this recipe)

About 2lbs. nopales
1 onion, halved
4 cups water
2 Tbs. salt
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
4 green chiles - serrano or jalapeno - chopped

Prepare the cactus pads as described in the preparation section above. Once you have removed the needles, nodules and thoroughly washed the pads, chop into bite-size pieces. Place the chopped Nopales into a pan with the 4 cups of water, halved onion and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30-45 minutes or until tender. Drain Nopales and combine with remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. This dish gets better if you let is sit a few hours in the refrigerator before serving. Serves 4 or more.