You may have seen them for sale at Mexican markets, on produce stands at the swap meet, and even in the produce section of many grocery stores; beaver tail-shaped cactus leaves called “nopales”. For years, I would pass by these unappealing guys, but I always wondered what they tasted like. I also wondered how in the world one could possibly work with them!
Nopales aren’t actually leaves, but they’re the soft stems of the underdeveloped prickly pear cacti. What would be considered the leaves, scientifically speaking, are the spines…go figure! Many people are only familiar with the prickly pear fruit themselves, which taste like a cross between watermelon and strawberries…Yum!
Okay. Either green or purple, nopales are roughly the size of a person’s hand, and, when cooked, they have a consistency somewhere between green beans and green peppers. Native to Mexico and Central America, they’re regularly added to eggs and steak stir fry.
Nopales have a wide range of health benefits. They aid in weight loss, regulate blood sugar, prevent cancer, improve skin health, protect heart health, regulate and improve digestion, boost the immune system, optimize metabolic activity, build strong bones, cure insomnia, and reduce inflammation throughout the body. Wow!
A couple of months ago, my dear friend Terre Dunivant (gaiagraphicsLINK), asked me if I had ever eaten nopales raw or cooked. She said that she had a ton of them in her yard if I ever wanted any. She said that they’re spectacularly healthy, as they’re brimming with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and many other phyto-nutrients. Even after hearing about these awesome health benefits, when I pictured the cactus paddles in my mind, I shied away from working with those spines. I said, “I love you Terre, but thanks anyway!”
Then, just last week, I was at my cooking demo booth at the Wednesday morning market in Arroyo Grande, right across from sweet Lupe’s produce booth. Lo and behold, I saw that she had 3 ziplock bags of de-spined and diced nopales for sale for just $3/bag! My eyes kept going back to those neatly diced nopales all morning. When there was a lul in the crowd, I walked over to ask Lupe about them, and she let me taste a piece raw. It was crispy and watery and surprisingly tangy, which tells me they’re full of vitamin C. I was immediately turned on. I thought, “what a refreshing element to a summer salad these would make!” I was also super excited by the idea of finally learning to cook with them.
To guide buyers in cooking them, Lupe had a small, laminated sign that told us to put them in a saucepan with a bit of salt and simmer them for 10-20 minutes on low heat until they let go of their water. Then, one can drain them and easily saute them with onions, eggs, stir fry, meats…anything! “Oh Boy!” I thought, “the possibilities are endless…let the adventure begin!”

Nopales & Caramelized Onion in Scrambled Eggs:
I brought the diced nopales home and did exactly what Lupe’s sign had instructed. Then, I set them aside, and sauteed a large diced onion in my favorite cast-iron skillet in about 2Tbsp nitrate-free bacon fat. When the onion started to brown and caramelize, I threw in the simmered and drained “nopalitos” along with: 1/2tsp each turmeric, cumin, and coriander. I stirred everything together, then covered the pan and let it simmer for about 4-5 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or so. On the side, I had whisked about 4 eggs with about 1/2tsp sea salt until they were frothy and fluffy, then I poured the eggs over everything and scrambled the whole ensemble together for a lovely, pre-Cinco de Mayo breakfast!

Here’s a link to the many details of the heath benefits of nopales:

A Few Words of Caution:
Due to nopales ability to regulate and affect blood sugar levels, they can sometimes make people hypoglycemic, and they should also not be consumed excessively before an operation, since they makes it difficult to control glucose and blood nutrient levels.

Integrity note from Courtney:
Since I finally ended up cooking with nopales last week, I just had to write about the experience for my May newsletter, instead of writing about the various kinds of dark leafy greens and the healthiest ways to prepare them, as I said I would do this month in last month’s newsletter. For this, I apologize deeply. And, I intend, in June, to finally bring you the reasons why some kinds of greens are best for the body when eaten raw, why some kinds are best when at least lightly cooked, and why some kinds are best when fermented. Thank You So Much for your readership, your time, and your patience!