Cactus Cooking: 3 Prickly Pear Recipes

Prickly pear cactus has been a staple in Mexican and Central American cooking for thousands of years. It’s also gaining popularity as healthy addition to a balanced diet.

Did You Know?
Found in the deserts of the Southwest, prickly pear is the official cactus of Mexico and was named the official plant symbol of Texas in 1995.

What are your favorite ways to cook prickly pear? »

The prickly pear plant has three different edible sections. The pad of the cactus, called nopal, can be used as a vegetable. The flower petals can be used as a garnish or added to salads. Then there’s the pear, which can be eaten like any other fruit.  Prickly pear makes a good addition to any dish since it is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and calcium.

In recent years, prickly pear has gained a reputation for its medicinal as well as culinary purposes. It’s been touted as a hangover cure, and some people use it to lower blood sugar and cholesterol and even to lose weight.  But is there any evidence to back up these claims?

Prickly pear has shown some promise as a hangover cure. One study found that the plant extract can reduce hangover symptoms of nausea, dry mouth, and anorexia if taken five hours before drinking.

Eating the nopal has been shown to help lower cholesterol, and its high fiber content may make it a good addition to the diets of people with diabetes. But take note: not all prickly pear parts are the same. To date, only the broiled stems of a specific species called Opuntia streptacantha have been shown to lower blood sugar immediately after meals. 

Prickly pear is generally recognized as safe and has been consumed for centuries. Try these recipes to limit your risk of a hangover or to expand your palate.

Huevos Nopal

Huevos Nopal

You can find nopal, the pads of the prickly pear cactus, fresh, or you can buy them prepared without the spines and already cut into pieces.  If you buy them fresh, look for smaller pads, which are more flavorful. Carefully remove the spines using gloves and a paring knife. 

Ingredients:

½ cup chorizo (you can substitute low-fat turkey sausage if desired), cut or crumbled
12 oz nopal, cleaned and diced
1 large tomato, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
⅓ onion, chopped
1-2 Jalapenos, chopped and de-seeded
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste
4 large eggs (if desired, substitute 4 egg whites for 2 whole eggs)
8 corn or flour tortillas, warmed
4 oz cheese, shredded
¼ c cilantro, chopped

Step by Step:

  1. Brown the sausage in a large saucepan.
  2. Drain, leaving just a thin film of oil in the pan. 
  3. Add the nopal, tomato, garlic, onion, jalapenos, cumin, and chili powder and cover.  Cook over medium heat for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  4. Add the cooked sausage to the pan.
  5. Break the eggs into a bowl and beat. Add to the pan and cook until set. 
  6. Spoon egg mixture into warmed tortillas, topping with cheese and cilantro.

Prickly Pear Syrup

Prickly Pear Syrup

Use this syrup on pancakes, on top of fruit, or in any dessert recipe that calls for syrup. When you look for pears, remember that mature prickly pears are a darker green or blackish purple. Ripe fruits tend to be redder at the base.

Ingredients:

2 pounds prickly pears
½ cup water
2 cups sugar
Juice from 1-2 lemons

Step by Step:

  1. Remove the skin of the fruit by either scraping with a sharp knife or scrubbing the pears with a vegetable brush.  
  2. Cut into halves or quarters. 
  3. Place in a large stew pot, cover with water, and boil for 20 to 30 minutes. 
  4. Crush with a potato masher or put in a food processor and blend. 
  5. Strain through a cloth-lined colander.  

Glazed Roasted Cornish Hens

Glazed Roasted Cornish Hens

Now that you’ve made the syrup, try incorporating it into your Sunday roast.

Ingredients:

4 small Cornish hens
¼ cup of prickly pear syrup (see above)
1 large sprig of sage for each hen
1 tsp. cayenne powder
Ground black pepper and salt to taste

Step by Step:

  1. Put the sprig of sage into the hen’s cavity and dust the pheasant with cayenne pepper. 
  2. Place the bird breast side down on a rack in a roasting pan.
  3. Roast the hens at 350℉ for about 1 hour, basting with the syrup every 15 minutes (internal temperature of about 180℉).  Serve with your choice of sides.