You would not think that the Mid-South would be a mecca of cacti. It is odd to think of a cactus and the states of Tennessee and Georgia in the same thought. However, they do grow here. I personally have found them in Maury and Marshall counties and even near Centennial Park in downtown Nashville. What makes these desert plants grow here? Rock. Granite outcrops to be specific. This rocky terrain gets much hotter than the surrounding area as the rocks absorb heat. There is also less moisture as runoff occurs. Thus, you have a mini desert! So we have the luxury of plants that are ideally suited for these desert-like conditions which you would not find in this area otherwise. Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) cacti is also highly edible. Both the pads and the red fruit that the plant produces can be used in numerous recipes. This cactus has been a frequent ingredient in southwestern and Native American cuisine.
The best time to harvest the cactus paddles or "Nopales" is in the late spring while the fruit or "Tunas" is in the late summer. There are two types of spines on these pads that you must eliminate before cooking. You will see large smooth fixed spines and small hair-like spines that are called glochids. It is these glochids that will cause you the most pain! They easily penetrate the skin and detach from the plant. There are two ways to remove the glochids from the pads or fruit. You can either cut/scrape it off or you can burn it off. If a blow torch is not convenient, I would suggest the scraping. To harvest, use a knife (or twisting/bending motion) and tongs. I would also suggest using gloves, thick ones. You can actually buy the cacti in Spanish markets already de-spined and sliced, ready for cooking. So when you are cursing about the stickers in your hand, remember that people pay big bucks for this delicacy! Duct tape or Elmer's glue can be used to remove splinters.
The pads of the Prickly Pear have a taste similar to green beans and a texture like okra. The red fruit is slightly sweet and similar to a cross between a pear and a beet. The pads are typically boiled, grilled or fried while the fruit is often made into jelly, added to smoothies or eaten raw. The pads are not peeled. Just carefully remove the spines before slicing and cooking. For the fruit, if you cut the ends off and then cut in half or make a slice down the side of the body, the peel comes right off. You can also easily scoop out the seeds with a spoon. The flesh is the part in which most people are interested, though the seeds are edible as well. To juice the prickly pear fruit, place the "husked" (still with seeds) prickly pears into a blender or food processor and pulse until liquefied. Poor into a fine mesh sieve and press out the juice into a bowl. Discard the remaining seeds and pulp. Depending on the size, between six and twelve prickly pear fruits will give you one cup of juice.
Research on the nutrition of the prickly pear suggests that is can lower bad cholesterol and lower the need for insulin in diabetics. It has many antioxidant properties and is rich in vitamin C, iron, beta carotene and calcium. Due to its high fiber content it has also been used to improve the digestive system.
While a person who has never eaten prickly pear before might find the idea of eating something with spines on it to be a bit crazy, there are numerous accounts of people who grew up eating it, still crave it and reverently pass down recipes for it. Here are some recipes:
1 large or two small pads of Prickly Pear Cactus
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
¼ lb cornstarch
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons garlic granules
1 tablespoon sugar
Oil for frying
Clean and then cut cactus into fry shaped slice. Place in a colander and let drain for an hour. Place slices in a dish and coat with buttermilk. Put in refrigerator to soak overnight. The next day, drain most of the buttermilk. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients. Dip slices into dry mix to coat. Fry in oil in heated pan or electric deep fryer until crispy.
Prickly Pear Salsa
3 large tomatoes, chopped
3 medium Golden Delicious apples, grated
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 cups diced cactus pads
2 zucchini, grated
Juice of 2 limes or lemons
Toss all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until serving. This produces about eight cups of salsa.
3/4 lb cactus paddles, cleaned and sliced thin
1 tbsp canola oil
1 yellow onion (diced)
3 cloves garlic (minced) 2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 cups cooked rice
4 cups Monterrey Jack shredded cheese, divided
salt (to taste)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Boil sliced cactus in water for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside
In a skillet, fry onion in oil until translucent, add garlic for one minute more.
In a large bowl, add all ingredients and half the cheese. Mix well.
Place mixture in casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.
Bake for 30 minutes uncovered until cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown.
6 cups prickly pear (fruit) juice
6 cups white sugar
4 tablespoons lemon juice
Combine strained prickly pear juice and lemon juice and cook over medium heat until boiling. Add sugar and stir constantly. Keep at a rolling boil until all of the sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat. If canning syrup, ladle into sterilized jars and water bath can for 15 minutes. If using syrup immediately, cool syrup and store covered in the refrigerator for up to one month.
This is great for mixed drinks, on pancakes or as a marinade for chicken when mixed with pineapple!
Prickly Pear Jelly
4 cups prickly pear (fruit) juice
6 tablespoons lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
1 package no sugar pectin
4 cups sugar
Combine prickly pear juice, lemon juice, and pectin in a large sauce pan. Bring to a hard boil. (A hard boil is when the pot continues to boil, even after you've stirred it). Begin to add sugar slowly with constant stirring, taking about 5 minutes to add sugar, and keeping juice at a boil.
Remove from heat and ladle into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe rims thoroughly. Center hot lid on jar. Apply band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight. Water bath can for 15 minutes.
Optional: 1/4 cup jalapeno peppers diced fine added along with sugar