Cherry Chipotle Nopales Salsa and the Medicine of Prickly Pear
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
- 2 medium tomatoes
- 2 medium sized nopales (cactus pads) *
- ½ sweet onion
- 1 cup black cherries
- ⅛ teaspoon sea salt
- 1⁄10 teaspoon chipotle powder
- 2 limes
- ¼ of a small bunch of cilantro (to taste)
- Handful of edible flowers – calendula, scarlet runner beans, and a touch of red clover are the flowers in the pictured salsa. Also consider the flowers of bee balm, chives, rose of sharon, squash, or daylily (consume in moderation if you are eating daylily for the first time, as a small percentage of the population is allergic)
- Dice the nopales into ½ inch cubes, bring three cups of water to a boil, boil the diced pads for two minutes, strain and put aside to cool.
- Pit the cherries. Dice the tomatoes, onions, cherries, and cilantro. Place in the serving bowl.
- Add the salt, chipotle powder, and the juice of one and half lemons. Slice the remaining half lemon into garnish wedges. Mix.
- Add the edible flowers. Consider pulling the petals away from the functioning parts. For example, pull the calendula “petals” off of the whole flower (the green parts are tough and taste medicinal).
- Garnish with lime wedges, coarse sea salt, and whole edible flowers.
Serve with chips or as a side with any Mexican dish. I love this salsa as an accompaniment to scrambled eggs and feta in corn tortillas. The salsa is high in bioflavanoids, with its array of vibrant rainbow colors. We often think of fruits as being exceptionally high in anti-oxidant bioflavonoids; edible flowers also are an excellent source.
* Nopales, or cactus pads, have two types of armor: the spines and the minuscule, barely visible, spiny hairs called glochids. If you are using store-bought pads they will be de-spined but may still have the glochids, which are found at the little circular spots (areoles) throughout the pads. Glochids annoyingly lodge into skin, the tongue, and throat alike, and can be felt for days if not gingerly removed. I find it easy to scrub them off with a metal scrub pad or vegetable brush, followed by liberal rinsing. Alternately they can be singed off by roasting over a fire on a grill or holding by tongs over flame. Some people cut off all of the areoles with a paring knife. If your pad is young and tender you can dice it, without peeling, after making sure all the glochids and spines are removed. If the pad is a little older, its skin will be tough, and should be removed with a vegetable peeler. I grow a spineless variety of nopal, which has just a few glochids; the fresh young pads only take a minute to process before preparing. A young pad will bear little green protrusions at the areoles, which resemble green teddy-bear-like spines; these are actually the leaves of the cactus, which fall off as the pad ages. See these tiny leaves on a freshly emerged pad in the close-up picture below. If the pad is a lighter green color and still bears its tender green “spines,” it is at a good stage to harvest, and will probably not need to be peeled. If you are harvesting wild prickly pear pads, harvest with thick leather gloves, and cut away any spines with a knife. Then remove the glochids as previously described. Please scroll down past the pictures to read about the medicine of prickly pear.
Food as Medicine
Nopales (Opuntia spp., Cactaceae) are an important medicine and traditional food in Central America and the Southwest. The pads are eaten as food, dried and ingested as capsules, or made into a medicinal slurry beverage. The fruit is eaten fresh (after the glochids and spines are removed), juiced, and prepared as wine and jam. The pads are high in soluble fiber, which helps in the removal of excess cholesterol from the body; it is thus beneficial in prevention of cardiovascular disease. Soluble fiber is water soluble, or hydroscopic; it swells and takes on a slimy texture in the presence of water. Oats, okra, barley, chia, flax seed, and split peas are all high in soluble fiber; they all have a slimy or mucilaginous texture.
The liver packages up excess cholesterol in bile salts (a component of bile), which is excreted into the small intestines via the gall bladder. If soluble fiber is present in the diet, cholesterol binds to the fiber and is escorted out of the body in bowel movements. If there is little to no fiber in the body, the cholesterol can be reabsorbed further downstream, thus increasing the body’s net supply of cholesterol.
Soluble fiber is also a prebiotic, which means intestinal flora can feed off it; eating foods high in soluble fiber is one of the ways we can nourish healthy populations of beneficial bacteria. Another additional benefit of fiber is increasing satiety without adding calories. This is obviously beneficial only in people with easy access to abundant food.
Prickly pear is one of the most popular herbs for treating NIDDM (non-insulin- dependent diabetes mellitus) in Mexico. It has demonstrated hypoglycemic effects, possibly through increasing insulin sensitivity at the level of cellular membranes. It appears to be more active in moderating blood sugar levels as food, rather than the powdered form (capsules). The daily dosage is four fluid ounces of a slurry made from the pad blended with water, taken in divided dosages. One to two small pads, ingested as food, is a more pleasant delivery of prickly pears medicine, in my humble estimation. Downing slimy goo as a beverage conjures up images of slurping frog eggs, but it may be fine for you (especially if you are a raw oyster imbiber). The tangy mucilaginous pads can be eaten with scrambled eggs, prepared into salsas, cooked into soups, or eaten as a pickled condiment. Caution should be used in combining prickly pear with pharmaceutical hypoglycemic agents, as the prickly pear may dangerously compound the hypoglycemic affect. The dosage of the pharmaceutical may need to be lowered with concurrent use of prickly pear.
Topically, the pulp of the prickly pear is anti-inflammatory and used to reduce the swelling of burns, rashes, arthritis, sprains, and other injuries. The fruit of prickly pear, called tunas, are also edible and are very high in anthocyanins, which is a type of anti-oxidant bioflavanoid. The juice is quite tasty, and in my experience, feels very potent nutritionally. A daily dose of the juice is two to four ounces diluted in water or other milder juices.