Nopalitos: Taming The Prickly Pear Cactus

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Some summer foods beg to be eaten: fresh tomatoes, sweet corn on the cob. But one virtually screams, "Leave me alone!" Nopalitos are the pads of the prickly pear cactus. In Mexico and the American Southwest, they're a staple at farmers' markets.


Now let's go to California's neighbor, Arizona, for this week's installment of our Farmers Market series. Some summer foods beg to be eaten, like fresh tomatoes or juicy corn on the cob. But nopalitos, the cut-up pads of the prickly pear cactus, virtually scream, leave me alone. NPR's Ted Robbins tells us why they're worth the trouble.

TED ROBBINS: Sara Rickard runs the festive weekly Santa Cruz River Farmers Market in Tucson. She began eating cactus pads, nopales, or nopalitos in Spanish, when Mexican-American friends introduced them to her.

Ms. SARA RICKARD (Santa Cruz River Farmers Market): I usually sauté them in scrambled eggs, or sauté them with some tomatoes, or just eat them fresh.

ROBBINS: Katie Soane(ph) is 83 years old. She grew up eating Nopalitos in Mexico, where they've been a staple for thousands of years. During Lent, she says, it's just about all she ate.

Ms. KATIE SOANE: When I was growing up, I mean, my family believed that you don't eat meat the whole cotton-picking week. (Unintelligible) Holy Week.

ROBBINS: Now Soane not only eats nopalitos, she picks and prepares them for the market here. The word nopalito means small pad, the flat oval-shaped branches of the prickly pear cactus, or nopal. She uses tongs to twist them off the plant.

Ms. SOANE: You just pick them off, put them in the bucket, and throw a lot of water on them, so the main (unintelligible) of stickers come out.

ROBBINS: The cactus pads have clumps of hair-like thorns. She scrapes off the hairs and the thick green skin.

Ms. SOANE: With a knife. See? And then you turn it around and do the same thing, and this is the way they come out.

ROBBINS: Cut up into small squares, they look like green bell peppers. They taste…

Ms. SOANE: Sort of like okra. Don't they taste like okra to you?

ROBBINS: Slightly sour. And - just slightly, and a little slimy like okra.

Ms. SOANE: (Unintelligible)

ROBBINS: The more you rinse, the less slimy they are. Nopalitos are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and low in fat. Soane likes them fresh in salads.

Ms. SOANE: With olive oil and wine vinegar or onions, the red onions, you just cut them in little pieces and the tomatoes.

ROBBINS: My front yard actually has a patch of prickly pear just right for nopalitos. I thought about picking and preparing some - for about a minute. Then I decided to leave it to Katie Soane and buy them already prepared at the farmers market.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

INSKEEP: You can find recipes and share yours at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)


And a happy birthday now to a farmers market here in Los Angeles that's become a legend in its 75 years. It began in the middle of town, at Third and Fairfax with farmers selling fresh produce out of the backs of their trucks. Today it's a collection of low-slung wooden buildings and outdoor stands hocking everything from fresh donuts to fresh fish.

As the story goes, James Dean ate his last breakfast there. Tourists also flock to this farmers market, some of them taking a break from standing in line for "The Price is Right," which is right around the corner at CBS. So to the original farmers market, happy birthday.

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