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Organic : Cactus: The Touchiest Vegetable

July 08, 1993|CHRISTOPHER NYERGES | Nyerges writes for Whole Life Times, in which this article first appeared. and

Though cactus are about 90% water, it's a myth that you can simply insert a spigot between the spines and fill a canteen. When pressed and mashed, a glue-like liquid comes from the pulp of all fleshy cactus, but the easiest way to get water from them is to peel the fruits or young pads and eat them raw. In addition, the pads, fruits, seeds and flowers of the prickly pear are all edible.

The pads and fruits are covered with spines and, at the base of each spine, numerous hair-like mini-spines called glochids. Be careful when you collect and clean the pads and fruits, since glochids can cause considerable irritation on your skin for several days. Collect the pads or fruit with thick gloves, or with a piece of canvas or brown paper. You can then remove the spines and glochids from the cactus either by peeling the skin or by burning them off.

When collecting pads, choose young, glossy green ones. The older ones are fibrous and tough. Prepare the pads by peeling their skin, dicing the flesh and adding them to salads. The flavor is reminiscent of sour green peppers.

Of course, the easiest way to obtain cactus is in grocery stores, many of which are now carrying prickly pear pads ( nopales ) and cactus pear fruit. You can also check Mexican markets for edible cactus. Nopales are available year-round; cactus pear season is July through March.

Cactus can be prepared and eaten in a number of different ways. The peeled pads can be thinly sliced (like green beans) and boiled. The first water is poured off if you want to reduce the sliminess. Then, once cooked in the second water, you can season with butter and garlic powder, and serve. The peeled and sliced green pads can also be dried and then reconstituted later for various recipes. These dried cactus slices, commonly known as leather britches, are used in soups and stews in much the way you'd use green beans.

Omelets are commonly made with young prickly pear pads. Peel and dice, and cook in a skillet until the water starts to come out of the cactus. The bright color will change to a dull green, almost tan, as it cooks. Add diced onions and eggs and serve when ready. Prickly pear cactus is commonly served this way in omelets. Huevos rancheros con nopalitos , for example, is ranch-style eggs with cactus.

Diced prickly pear pads help to thicken soup and stew stock, as does okra. The peeled pads can also be baked like squash, or pickled.

The fruit is edible raw, with a flavor reminiscent of watercress, but with a more granular texture. It's full of tiny edible seeds. Many indigenous people have dried the seeds before grinding them into a type of pastry flour. The flour can be used alone or mixed half and half with other flours for bread, pancakes or other pastry products.

These fruits ripen in late summer. Use the prickly pear to make drinks, pies, jam, jellies and other desserts. I've even made prickly pear ice cream. by peeling the fruit and mashing the red seedy pulp, not bothering to strain out the seeds. I put the mashed fruit into an electric ice cream maker with milk (no sugar added) and process according to manufacturer's directions.

Prickly pear juice is also easy to make. Press the peeled fruit through a colander to remove the seeds. Add an equal amount of water to the sweet, pulpy mass and serve chilled.

PRICKLY PEAR SALAD 1 cup young cactus pads, peeled and diced 1 cup diced tomato slices 1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced 1 small onion, finely chopped 1 green onion, finely chopped 1/4 head lettuce, torn 1 tablespoon oil 1 tablespoon vinegar Dill Kelp powder

Combine cactus, tomatoes, avocado, onions and lettuce in large bowl. Mix oil, vinegar, dill and kelp powder to taste in small bowl until well combined. Pour dressing over salad and toss to combine. Makes 4 servings.

NEW MEXICO SUNRISE CACTUS OMELET 1 tablespoon butter 2 cups young cactus pads, peeled and diced 2 cups diced onions 6 eggs

Melt butter in skillet over low heat. Add cactus and onions and cook until cactus is slightly browned.

Beat eggs in small bowl, then pour into skillet. Stir cactus mixture and eggs together with fork to form omelet. Tilt pan and use spatula to fold omelet onto serving plate.

Serve with steamed flour or corn tortillas and jalapeno chile. Makes 4 servings.

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