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How to Harvest Prickly Pear Cactus

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I have years of experience growing my own food in my garden, but I also enjoy foraging for food out in the wild.

Tender young prickly pear cactus leaves.

Tender young prickly pear cactus leaves.

How to Collect Prickly Pear Cactus Pads

Prickly pear is a type of cactus that is found in abundance in several western and southern states. In summer, it bears sweet edible fruits, called tunas or pears, that can be harvested and eaten raw or canned as preserves or jam. The juice also has a number of healing properties, similar to the aloe vera plant.

Usually ready in early spring, the pads or leaves are not only edible but are delicious and high in fiber and vitamins. Called nopales in Spanish, they are often found in the produce section of supermarkets throughout the southwestern US. In traditional Mexican cooking, they are used to prepare the dish “nopalitos.” Store-bought prickly pear pads usually come from farm-raised, spineless varieties. The wild prickly pear pads or leaves are just as edible, however, you’ll have to beware of tiny thorns and thoroughly remove them before cooking.

In a survival situation, where you may have to forage for things to supplement your supply of staple goods, prickly pear pads are an easily gathered food that can be cooked in a variety of ways. As a low-water use or xeriscape plant, prickly pear cactus is increasingly being used in landscaping, and it produces beautiful flowers in late spring. Prickly pear cactus thrives in temperate climates and, when grown or wild harvested, can provide some suburban preppers with yet another emergency food source. Here is one of my favorite ways of preparing prickly pear leaves or pads.

Step 1: Beware, There Be Thorns!

Once you have located a large bunch of cactus, grab a metal pan, a pair of leather gloves, along with a pair of tongs or long-handled pliers. Locate the new green pads that are shorter than 4″. They will be dark green in color and, while appearing thorn-less, will still have some very fine thorns that can be quite painful. Using your tongs, grab the pads from above and twist them off of the plant, or grab and slice off with a sharp knife. Be careful of the surrounding mature pads with large thorns! Young shoots should come off quite easily with a twist, also letting you know that they’ll be tender to eat.

Beware of small thorns while cleaning the cactus pads.

Beware of small thorns while cleaning the cactus pads.

Step 2: Clean the Cactus Pads

If you have a gas stove, you may want to use your tongs to hold the pads over a high gas flame for a second or two and burn off the larger thorns that could otherwise injure you when cleaning the pads.

Next, using a knife and cutting board, scrape the small leaves off of the cactus pads. Don’t touch the uncleaned pad with your bare fingers yet! Using a paring knife, cut the tiny spines around the edges as well and make sure not to leave any bumps. When cleaned, the cactus pads should look like the one in the second photo below. This is important, since tiny thorns left behind can be painful if eaten. Wash thoroughly, and only after all the spines are gone can you pick it up with bare hands.

Scrape off all of the small prickly leaves on the cactus pad and trim the outer edges until it looks like the one below.

how-to-harvest-prickly-pear-cactus

Clean off all of the spots and rinse thoroughly under running water. The tiny yellowish-brown spot seen on the lower right edge needs to be removed, since it contains a very tiny cluster of thorns that could get stuck in your mouth.

Step 3: Slice the Cactus and Cook

You may cut the cactus pad into small strips or even tiny cubes and stir fry with onion and peppers, as seen below. Cook until they become soft and slightly browned and serve on their own or with scrambled eggs in a grilled tortilla, as seen below.

Cooking the nopales.

Cooking the nopales.

how-to-harvest-prickly-pear-cactus

Other Ways to Cook Prickly Pear Cactus

Another way to cook prickly pear leaves or pads is to clean them the same way as above, but instead of slicing and stir frying them, dip the pads in an egg and milk mixture and batter with flour or a flour/cornmeal mixture. You can then fry the battered cactus until golden brown and serve with ranch dressing or chipotle dipping sauce. Yum!

What do cactus pads taste like? It depends on how they are cooked. When cooked with flour and egg batter, they may taste similar to fried okra. Cooked as nopalitos, as seen above, they have a tangy, tart flavor and “bitey” texture that remains moist when cooked, sort of like a grilled bell pepper.

Prickly Pear Pad Nutrition Facts:

The following nutritional information for cactus pads is from the USDA.

3 1/2 ounces of prickly pear cactus contain the following: 40 calories, 10 grams carbohydrates, 3.5 grams of fiber, 24% DV of Magnesium, 17% DV of Vitamin C, 8% DV of riboflavin, 8% DV of B6, 6% DV of Calcium, 5% DV of potassium, along with beneficial antioxidants. (DV = Daily recommended value.)

Serve with grated cheese or salsa.

Serve with grated cheese or salsa.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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