Prickly Pear Succulent Salad

…& Prickly Pear Margarita!

The most commonly eaten cactus worldwide is the prickly pear (all Opuntia species are edible, though some are tastier than others). It is both a fruit and a vegetable. This cactus is widely abundant in many geographic areas, though they prefer arid regions like Southern California.

This popular plant is enjoyed and cultivated worldwide but can still be found growing abundantly in the wild. You may even have some already growing in your own backyard or in your neighborhood (be sure to ask permission to harvest if they are growing on property you don’t own).

Some folks are turned off by the cactus’s characteristic “slime.” While there are ways to combat this to make it a more texturally appealing meal, it is good to keep in mind that this is where all of the beneficial components are found and cooking heat will degrade those nutrients.

Health Benefits 

There are plenty of reasons to go to all the trouble to harvest such a hostile plant. This cactus is hailed for its excellent and well-documented health-improving qualities such as high vitamin, antioxidant and mineral content including calcium, magnesium and potassium. The green pads (nopales) contain compounds that fight inflammation, high cholesterol, obesity and even combat hangovers—so don’t feel too guilty making the Prickly Pear Margarita recipe below. They also contain about 90% water.

How to Harvest 

Using leather gloves, a bucket and metal tongs, collect new-growth pads that are about the size of your palm. Beware that even though the young pads will lack the larger and more obvious thorns, they still have tiny hair-like spines called glochids that are difficult to see and are very irritating once they’re in your skin. Use the tongs to grab and twist the pad off of the supporting segment. If they do not separate easily, the pads are likely too mature to eat. Once in the kitchen, carefully scrape the spines off each side and trim along the outer edge. Once you carefully rinse the pad, it is ready to use in any recipe.

Prickly pear fruits are similar in their harvest. Collect them with tongs and, using gloves, slice off each end and peel the fruit. The leftover skins can be dehydrated and powdered. To make juice, place the fruits into a fruit press and strain the resulting juice with a very fine mesh sieve or coffee filter.

Succulent Salad with Cilantro Lime Cream and Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette

The seasonal foraged salad can be made from ingredients you foraged yourself, or from a more urban foraging: at the farmers’ markets. Purslane, wild greens (or mixed greens) and jicama can all be found during the summer months at local markets.

For the Salad:

Salad Ingredients:
2 prickly pear pad (nopal)
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup purslane leaves
1/4 cup diced red onion
1 cup chopped kale or other wild greens
1/2 cup sliced grape tomatoes
1/4 cup shredded jicama
Cilantro Lime Cream see recipe below
Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette see recipe below

To prepare the prickly pear leaf, see above How to Harvest, then dice into small bite sized pieces and toss with two teaspoons of salt and let rest for 10 minutes in a bowl. Rinse thoroughly and drain in a colander.

Combine rinsed prickly pear with remaining ingredients and drizzle with Cilantro Lime Cream and Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette and serve immediately. Raw prickly pear does not store well and should be consumed the same day it is prepared.

Cilantro Lime Cream

1 avocado
1/2 bunch cilantro
2 cloves garlic
Zest of 1 lime and juice
1/4 cup water
Salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a high speed blender and adjust flavors to your preference.

Creamy Prickly Pear Vinaigrette

1/2 cup hemp seed or cashew
1 shallot, peeled and diced  
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced  
1 lime, juiced  
1/4 cup prickly pear juice
1 tablespoon agave nectar  
6 tablespoons olive oil  
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a high speed blender and adjust flavors to your preference.

Prickly Pear Margarita

Salt & prickly pear fruit powder mixture*
1 1/2 oz tequila or mezcal
1 oz triple sec
1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz prickly pear syrup**

If you have a juicer, you can make this cocktail with a little advance planning. Save and dehydrate the skins and pulp of some prickly pear fruits and then powder them in a high-speed blender. You can also make your own prickly pear syrup by combining 1 cup of juice and 1 cup of sugar. Simmer until the sugar is combined with the juice.

Wet the rim of a glass by running a lime wedge around the edge. Sprinkle the salt and prickly pear fruit powder on a flat surface and rotate the rim of the glass in the mixture so that the rim is lightly coated. Add ice cubes to the glass.

Combine the tequila, triple sec, lime juice and prickly pear syrup in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously to combine thoroughly, then strain into glass. Garnish with a slice of lime.

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About Jess

Jess Starwood

Jess Starwood is an established author, chef, herbalist and educator. She holds a Masters of Science degree in Herbal Medicine and Holistic Nutrition. In 2021, she wrote and photographed her first book, Mushroom Wanderland: A Forager’s Guide to Finding, Identifying and Using More Than 25 Wild Fungi.

She also writes regularly for Edible Ojai & Ventura County, Edible San Fernando magazines and The Mycophile—the publication of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA).

Jess founded The Wild Path School where she teaches foraging, wild foods, herbalism and nature education classes for adults and children. She is a member of the Culinary Committee for NAMA and is on the board of directors for the Arizona Mushroom Society and the newsletter editor for the Los Angeles Mycological Society. She has also worked as a wild food consultant and forager for Michelin starred chefs Niki Nakayama and Aitor Zabala. Jess has been featured in National Geographic, The Guardian, and the Orange County Register.

Classes and workshops for adults and children are held regularly in the Greater Los Angeles area and west coast. Weekend and week-long wild food adventures are also occasionally available. Be sure to check out the event calendar or join the mailing list to be notified first of openings and availability.