Cactus pads, also known as nopales, are the edible stems of the prickly pear cactus, a member of the Opuntia species of cactus.
Cactus, a modified evergreen plant that originated in the deserts of Mexico, grows easily in desert and semi-arid climates. The cactus pad is a vegetable that is a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries. It has a slight lemon flavor and it’s added to pico de gallo, tacos, fajitas, egg dishes and Mexican salads.
The uncooked cactus pads have a jelly-like liquid that’s similar to aloe vera. The slimy fluid is called “baba” in Spanish. To eliminate the baba, boil the cactus pads in water with a raw onion or two cloves of garlic and it will absorb the sliminess.
You can find cactus pads in Latin American grocery stores or farmers markets. Most of them are sold with the spines removed and are sometimes available in canned form. Select cactus pads that are nicely green and have no blemishes. You can enjoy them raw in salads with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers and cilantro. They can also be grilled or sautéed and added to omelettes and fajitas.
This vegetable is becoming a superfood in the United States. It’s low in calories but rich in vital phytochemicals and antioxidants. Cactus pads have moderate amounts of vitamin A, and small amounts of B-complex vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 and pantothenic acid), vitamin C, calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron.