Get All Prickly
Cactus is a grassy, green fruit that works in a variety of dishes
When looking at a cactus in a desert, you may not immediately think of chopping off an arm, slicing it up and tossing it in a sauté pan. But if you look at the prickly pear cactus, it does offer plenty to desire.
“If people understand [exactly] what cactus is, they’d try it more,” says Brian Funk, divisional chef for Reinhart Foodservice. “The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s prickly and tough, but it’s pretty versatile.”
Funk, who has type-2 diabetes and heart issues, turned to cactus when he learned it’s high in fiber and vitamins A, C and K and that it helps lower cholesterol and plays a role in reducing blood sugar levels. He started slicing up the paddles of the prickly pear cactus, also called nopal, and blending it with pineapple, almond or coconut milk and sometimes frozen spinach and mango.
Beyond healthy green smoothies, this fruit can be used in a variety of cooking methods. It has a bit of a slimy consistency like okra with a flavor similar to green beans and it cooks up like green peppers.
“You can steam it, grill it, deep fry it,” Funk adds. “But for the first time, I’d slice it, sauté it and get a feel for it. See what the taste is like and pair it with different sides.”
Grilled nopal with tomato, queso fresco and lime juice is a classic southern Mexican salad. You can use cactus in fresh pico de gallo, grill it to add to fajitas in lieu of green peppers, or add it to an egg scramble with chorizo and cilantro. But cactus goes beyond Mexican cooking.
“It would play really well with Asian flavors like Chinese or Japanese,” says Andres Padilla, culinary director for Frontera Hospitality Group in Chicago. “Intense cooking in a wok can really bring out a unique consistency.”
Padilla says its versatility can be used for everything from nopal sashimi to herbal chimichurri or simply as a meat replacement for a hearty taco filling. “It’s an ingredient that’s versatile for hot and cold cooking,” Padilla says. “That makes it fun.”