“Dude. You’re seriously not going to put that in your mouth, right?”
That was what an acquaintance said to me when I bumped into him at Fresh Market and he saw the large cactus paddles in my basket. Once home, my son spotted the green beaver tails on the counter, and shrieked, “Dad, we are NOT having cactus for dinner!” I grinned a sly grin, and said under my breath, “Oh yes we are son. Yes. We. Are.”
I made him try the nopales (plural of nopal, Spanish for the prickly pear cactus pads when they are stripped of their spines and consumed as a vegetable). “Hmmm. Not bad,” he said. He didn’t eat all of them, but at least I was successful in introducing him to a new vegetable. And he now has a cool story to tell his friends at school.
Nopales are a severely under-appreciated vegetable. They are what a green pepper could only hope to be (well, if it was not allowed to turn red, that is). Nopales have a bright, refreshingly clean green taste. Maybe like green beans spritzed with kiwi, but subtler. And they are quite nutritious, too, being a good source of Vitamin C, manganese, and calcium. They are commonly sautéed with onions and served alongside meat, making them great for fajitas, tacos, and even in egg dishes. (Indeed, huevos con nopales is a common dish in Mexican cuisine). The only drawback for some (the spines notwithstanding) is that cactus is a succulent, meaning it stores quite a bit of mucilage (aka slimy goo). So, if you don’t like slimy foods, you may not like nopales. But if cooked at a high heat, the mucilage dissipates some. And like okra, you can use the mucilage to your advantage, giving your dishes a moist mouthfeel.
The fruit of nopales, called quite aptly prickly pear, is also commonly eaten. These fruits (known in Mexico as tunas) have more appeal to reticent consumers, because they are cute ovoids with a very attractive pink (or sometimes purple or yellow) skin. There are fine, hairy spines that may have to be scrubbed off, and quite a few seeds, but the pulp is very intriguing with its shocking magenta color. The flavor is not as bold, however. To me, prickly pear tastes like watery peach and cherry. Or floral berries as a friend put it.
November tends to be the tail end of prickly pear season in California, at least for the tunas. Prickly pear cactus is actually a very popular landscape plant in xeriscape gardens; you can find prickly pear used in street medians, around libraries, and people’s yards. So if you ever get a hankering for some cactus paddles, just find yourself a public plant and help yourself. Just make sure you wear beastly thick leather gloves while harvesting.
Nopales and prickly pears at the farmers market or grocery store usually have all the big spines and prickly hairs removed. But you still may have to trim them both yourself. The best way to know if you’ve done a decent job is to run your hand over the vegetable and fruit. If you get pricked, then you have more cleaning to do. (Okay, my guess is that advice wasn’t really insightful. But it is sage.)
Here’s a meal idea using both the cactus pads and the fruit. It’s hearty, full of flavor, and quite good; though I can’t promise your kids will eat cactus.
1 whole pork tenderloin (about 2 lbs)
2 large white sweet potatoes
Canola or Corn oil
1 large red onion
6 cloves garlic
4 prickly pears, juiced
1 ½ Valencia oranges, juiced (save the other half for garnish)
1 Tbsp agave nectar
2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
2 oz white wine
Rinse pork tenderloin and pat dry. Lightly salt and more liberally sprinkle with cumin, coriander and pepper over tenderloin. Use hands to rub spices in meat and let sit while you prepare the other ingredients.
Preheat oven to 400-degrees. Peel and dice sweet potatoes and place in a casserole dish. Liberally coat with oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, trim bottom end from each nopal. Using a vegetable peeler, peel nopales and then slice into ½ inch wide strips. Toss with sweet potatoes and roast for another 10 minutes. Now, peel and slice red onion. Toss with nopales and sweet potatoes and roast another 10-15 minutes.
While vegetables are roasting, trim the ends of each prickly pear and peel. Since there are a few seeds in the prickly pear, it is best to use a juicer instead of a food processor. Juice the pears, which should yield about 12 ounces of liquid. Juice should be thick with a bit mucilage, as this is the nature of cactus. Now juice the oranges (you can use your hands for these). Pour prickly pear juice, orange juice and agave nectar into a saucepan and simmer slowly over low heat until thickened to a syrup.
Heat grapeseed oil in a large cast iron skillet. Brown tenderloin on all sides (about 10 minutes). Lower temperature to medium-low and deglaze skillet with white wine. Now trade places with vegetables. The pork will go into the oven, and the vegetables in the skillet. Add minced garlic to the vegetables and sauté while the pork finishes roasting in the oven. Pork should be done in about 15 minutes, or when internal temperature reads 150-degrees. (Remember, the meat will continue to cook while resting.)
Remove pork from oven and let stand about 8-10 minutes. Cut tenderloin crosswise into 1-inch thick fillets. Plate with vegetables. Spoon hot prickly pear sauce over meat, and garnish with an orange wedge.