Posted on Thu, September 27, 2012 by Slow Food USA
0 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Cooking,
Written by Robert Morris, co-founder of Slow Food Las Vegas and former Professor Emeritus from the University of Nevada
If you were to pair cactus with other foods you might want to consider pairing it with limes and paprika. This is a popular pairing in Mexico with the cactus food called nopalitos where Opuntia ficus-indica, the prickly pear or nopal cactus, is native. In the popular literature you might think that this cactus was native to Italy since this plant gets much more play there as a food than where it grows natively, the inland deserts of Central Mexico.
However, Mexicans have enjoyed this food in many prepared forms for centuries. In respect for its place of origin, I prefer to use the Mexican terms for the edible portions of the plant: tunas (fruit), nopales (immature whole cactus pads for eating) and nopalitos (cactus pads that have been prepared for eating or cooking).
In 2003, I established nopal cactus plots at the University Orchard located at the Center for Urban Horticulture and Water Conservation in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Faculty and my good friends at the University of Sonora-Hermosillo, Mexico (USON) donated cactus pads from USON’s agricultural farm just outside of Hermosillo and taught us how to plant and manage their production.
Pads from two selections of nopal cactus, C1 and V1, were planted to determine the suitability of these selections to the Mojave Desert, learn about their production, transfer this knowledge to small scale producers in the Mojave Desert and develop a market for locally grown nopal cactus in the expanding Mexican as well as the non-Mexican populations.
Demand for products drives production. Slow Food and Slow Food Las Vegas were the perfect vehicles to use to introduce this food; where it comes from and how it is grown, how it is prepared as a food, and, the best part, how it is eaten. To do this we had to have the faculty from USON join us in Las Vegas through a small grant I was able to obtain.
In 2007 the Slow Food Convivium, Slow Food Las Vegas, held a Slow Food Workshop called Tres de Mayo (on May 3rd of course) in cooperation with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension where I was a faculty member until 2011. This workshop explained how to grow these plants and prepare foods from the tunas and nopalitos. Ten recipes developed by Maria Virginia Hernandez, faculty member in food technology at USON, were prepared for SF members to enjoy. Volunteers for the event spent two days with Professor Hernandez learning how to prepare these Mexican dishes.
In Mexico, nopal cactus is used for three food sources. First are the spiny fruits, tunas, originating from the beautiful and brightly colored flowers. Generally, nopal cactus will start flowering in its third year after planting. Planting for production is done asexually or vegetatively, planting the mature nopales (botanically called cladodes) to maintain the favorable food characteristics of the tunas and nopales.
The second edible portion of the cactus are the nopales or pads themselves. The nopales must be immature and succulent. We use compost at the beginning of the growing season and irrigations every other week to push growth and succulence. If irrigations are infrequent, the pads will be thick, tough and poor eating quality. If irrigations are too often, the plants will fall over or die from overwatering.
The third food source is for livestock, usually beef cattle. The spines of the nopales are removed with fire and the nopales fed to livestock where it can consist of nearly 80% of their diet during times of drought or a lack of pasture. In this case the pads do not have to be succulent. Cattle don’t seem to mind the tougher pads but do NOT like the spines. If the spines were not removed, they would cause lots of problems to the health of these animals.
Tuna range in color, size and taste quality. Fruit can be green, yellow or red and can have sugar contents above 16 Brix (this will rival a sweet apple, pear or peach). Most people want the red forms for appearance but locally the yellow or green are preferred for taste, particularly with a splash of lime. Acidity is low in tunas so citrus flavorings are usually a good combination to change the acid/sugar ratio. Experiment with other high acidity fruits like pineapple or strawberries.
Nopalitos have a taste similar to green beans or asparagus but with a high calcium content mucilage resembling okra. Diced or julienne cut, raw nopalitos sprinkled with lime juice and paprika is a traditional Sonoran summer treat.
The health benefits from eating nopalitos are now well known facts. It is known to be high in dietary fiber like many other tropical fruits, high in Vitamin C, and has been credited for reducing heart disease and cholesterol levels.
Nopal cactus tunas and nopales can be juiced and drank alone or in combination with other fruit juices. Flour is available for use in pastry recipes.
“Ceviche” of Nopalitos
Chopped onion, chili and coriander are placed in a container and the lemon juice is added. Let rest by 3-5. Add nopales, tomato juice, garlic salt and pepper and let rest all the ingredients by 3-5 min. It is possible to be mixed with clams, shrimps, squid or combination of seafood
Carrot and Nopalitos Cake
Mix oil and sugar until have a paste. Add eggs and vanilla, mix all together. Add carrots and nopalitos. Mix the rest of the ingredients. Prepare microwaveable dish with small amount of vegetable oil and sprinkle with wheat flour. Put the mix in pan and cook at low level (30%) about 8 minutes and cook for others 6 minutes at high level. Eat when the cake cools down. (Cooking time will vary with different microwaves.)
Marmelade of Nopalitos
Blend nopalitos and pineapple. Cut the apple in small dices. Add sugar. Heat and mix all together. When all the ingredients form a paste with thick consistency (the bottom of the receiving can be seen), the mermelade is done (almost 40 minutes).
Nopalitos in Brine (Pickled)
In pot, with boiling water cook nopalitos and carrots for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse nopalitos and carrots. In frying pan with the hot oil, sauté the onion, garlic and chili until the onion is transparent. Add nopales and the carrots. Dissolve the salt in water, and add vinegar. Add the nopalitos and the others vegetables to the brine with pepper, laurel leaf, thyme and marjoram. Boil all and let them over medium heat for 3 minutes. Place hot nopalitos and the others ingredients in hot jars leaving 1 cm or 1/2 inch of space between the mouth of the bottle and the product. Eliminate the bubbles that can be formed with a clean knife. Process sealed jars according to canner directions for pickles or refrigerate for immediate use. Label indicating the name of the product and date.
Nopalitos in Brine have an approximated time of life of 8 months.