How to Eat Cactus, the Spiked Nutritional Powerhouse


Some see cactus and think Southwest. But the spiky plants are actually a staple in Latin cooking. Even more surprising is how much nutrition lies behind the needles.

Why It’s Healthy

The fact that it hails from the desert is precisely what makes cactus so beneficial. “Plants that grow in the harshest environments are typically highest in the types of phytochemicals that help our bodies deal with stress,” says Susan Kleiner, a sports nutritionist based in Mercer Island, Washington. Thanks to those phytochemicals, as well as vitamins, polyunsaturated fats, and amino acids, cactus may have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and brain-protective properties. Plus, cactus is high in fiber and low in carbs, which is partly why research suggests it helps control blood sugar, according to a review in the journal Molecules. It’s also high in potassium, which is a key to hydration while working out.

How to Prep It

Look for fresh, despined nopales in the produce section. If you’ve got a spiky one, lay it on a cutting board, slip on dish gloves, and carefully shear off quills. Trim edges with a peeler. It’s a little slimy, like okra, but that cooks off. Then slice pads into wide ribbons, and cut those into one-inch pieces. You can boil for 10 minutes, until the cactus turns camo colored, then drain and rinse under cold water. Or saute in olive oil until cactus is fork-tender and sap evaporates. You can also buy chopped, ready-to-eat nopales at the supermarket.

When to Eat It

The veg tastes slightly of asparagus and works with tons of dishes. Toss on scrambled eggs and in quesadillas, or make a traditional nopales salad with chopped tomatoes, white onion, torn cilantro, and crumbled ranchero cheese.



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