Garden Lifestyle

When is a Pear a Vegetable?

The sharp spines of the Opuntia can be intimidating, but once they’re removed, the “nopales” turns into a nutritious vegetable that defies its prickly appearance.

Nopal salsa is a delicious way to enjoy the benefits of prickly pear cactus.
Photo/Illustration: Jodi Torpey

A New Look at an Old Vegetable

A few years ago I invited our new neighbors over for a get-acquainted dinner. The prickly pear cacti in my yard were sporting delicious-looking young pads so I decided to make a Nopal Salsa and serve it as an appetizer.

I cut the tender edible cactus pads, called nopales, boiled them in water and removed the spines. Then I mixed them with other ingredients for a colorful salsa and served them with home-made tortilla chips and frosty margaritas.

The neighbors dug into the salsa and thought it was delicious. But when I mentioned they were enjoying the cactus from my front yard, they both stopped eating in mid-bite. I assured them the salsa was made with a vegetable that’s an important part of the menu in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

Nopales (pronounced noh-PAH-lays) are the tender, edible cactus pads from the familiar prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species). Once the spines are removed, the fleshy pads are cooked and used in many different recipes from salads to salsas. The prepared nopalitos taste a little like a slightly tangy well-cooked green bean.

According to recent research, nopales are a high fiber, low calorie, low-sodium vegetable. They are also high in potassium and a good source of Vitamins A and C. Researchers believe nopales are a natural way to lower cholesterol and to help manage blood sugar for those with type 2 diabetes.

Easy Does It

Whenever I’m getting ready to harvest the cactus pads, I make sure I gear up with heavy-duty gloves, my Hori Hori knife, kitchen tongs or pliers and a colander. The Hori Hori slices through the cactus and then I carefully collect the pads with the tongs.

I only cut a few of the youngest, smallest and most tender pads. Then I wash them and place them in a pan of water and bring to a boil for about 30 minutes. The water is drained and the nopales allowed to cool before the spines are scraped off with a sharp knife.

If you don’t have your own prickly pear cacti growing in the yard, jars of prepared nopales can be found at specialty grocery stores or ordered from online suppliers.

Nopales Salsa Recipe


1 tablespoon vegetable oil
¼ cup chopped nopales
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup diced green chiles
¼ cup seeded and chopped tomatoes
½ cup water
Salt and pepper to taste


  • Heat oil in a skillet and add onions.
  • Fry onions for several minutes or until translucent.
  • Add nopales, chiles and tomatoes and fry for several minutes.
  • Add water, cover and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes or until water is absorbed.
  • Refrigerate for several hours to let the flavors mingle.

Makes about 1 cup salsa. Serve as a salsa with tortilla chips or as a topping for tacos, burritos or scrambled eggs.

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