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Cactus power: Nopales pack a nutritious punch

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Nopales are easy to grow in Yucatán and incredibly nutritious. Photo:: Getty
Nopales are easy to grow in Yucatán and incredibly nutritious. Photo:: Getty

Many foodies stop being adventurous when presented with a plate of nopales, those cactus paddles that are cooked and served in salads or in tacos.

And that’s a shame, because nopales are spectacularly healthy.

Nopales offer a wide range of health benefits: they’re good for losing weight, preventing cancer, maintaining heart health, and aiding your skin and your digestive system, according to Organic Facts.

Additionally, nopales boost the immune system, optimize metabolic activity, build strong bones, help cure insomnia and reduce inflammation throughout the body, experts believe.

But eating a cactus seems counter-intuitive to some people.

A vegetable, nopales are taken from the soft pads of young prickly pear cacti. They have a consistency somewhere between green beans and green peppers, and are added to eggs and stir fries.

Nutritional nopales

Check out your humble prickly pear’s nutrition and vitamin content, which includes riboflavin, vitamin B6, copper, iron, fiber, vitamin A, C, K, calcium, potassium, magnesium and manganese. It is also an important source of certain organic compounds like phytochemicals and certain polysaccharides, Organic Facts says.

Health benefits

Digestion: Nopales are loaded with dietary fiber, which is essential in the digestive process.

Weight loss: How can nopales help you shed pounds? See the previous paragraph. It’s the fiber, which can make the body feel full and inhibit the release of hunger hormones.

Cancer prevention: Their variety of phytochemicals, flavonoid compounds, vitamin C, and other antioxidants make them extremely beneficial for the entire immune system, particularly when it comes to various cancers.

Metabolism: Nopales contain thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6, all vital components of cellular metabolism.

Improving sleep: The magnesium content in a nopal is a useful mineral for insomnia sufferers, or those with chronic anxiety or restlessness. It induces the release of serotonin in the body, which results in increased melatonin levels.

Inflammation: The juice from prickly pear leaves has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on a variety of body parts, including those symptoms associated with arthritis, injury, joint pain and muscle strain. Apply the juice topically to the affected area, or consume the vegetable itself to also enjoy the effects, Organic Facts advises.

Skin health: The phytochemical and antioxidant characteristics of nopales make them a good defensive mechanism against premature wrinkles and age spots.

Diabetes: The extracts from the leaves of prickly pear cactus can be powerful regulators of glucose levels within the body. For patients with type 2 diabetes, it can cause a reduced spike in glucose levels following eating, which makes the management of diabetes easier.

Ulcers: Studies have verified the effectiveness of nopales as a cure for gastric ulcers. The mucilage and fibrous material in nopales makes it inhibit gastric ulcers and those that develop due to excessive alcohol consumption.

Living with nopales

Although associated more with central Mexico, nopales grow easily in Yucatán, and can be the centerpiece of a handsome, low-maintenance container garden. They need no watering or fertilizer, and grow quickly in tight spaces.

Here is a recipe for Nopales Rellenos, stuffed nopales, that the Diario de Yucatán published a few years back, attributed to chef José Raúl Aguilar Tuz.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium nopal paddles
  • 1 tomato
  • ½ onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 2 green chiles de arbol
  • 100 grams of cheese “ranchero” cheese
  • 6 large shrimps, fresh
  • Salt
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 2 tablespoons corn oil
  • 1 medium clove garlic

Preparation: 

Poach the tomatoes, remove skin and chop. Finely chop the onion.

Remove the seeds from the chiles and chop finely. Grate half the cheese. With the other half of the cheese, cut six slices.

Clean the shrimp and devein. Marinate the shrimp with salt, lemon juice and zest for 15 minutes.

Peel the nopales, and slice through the center, creating a pouch being careful not to perforate, and add a little salt.

Mix the tomatoes, onion and cilantro; season with salt.

Fill the nopales with tomato mixgture, two shrimps each and a slice of cheese.

Brush both sides of the nopal with a tablespoon of oil. Rub the grill or hot pan with garlic and oil, and sauté two minutes on each side until they start to brown.

Serve immediately sprinkled with grated cheese.

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