I grew up in the Sonoran Desert, where Saguaros, Jumping Cholla, Barrel Cacti and Prickly Pear dotted the foothills. The Saguaros, with arms reaching toward the sky, were wise, gnarled and grandfatherly, providing homes to birds, insects and rodents. The jumping cactus, or Teddy Bear Cholla, would seek to reach out and grab you if you weren’t cautious while traipsing across the flatlands. The Barrel Cactus supposedly held rainwater inside that could rescue you if you became stranded. Then there was the Prickly Pear, with its tiny, tickly spines and luscious blooms. When I was little, my mom told me, “If you want to touch a cactus, make sure it’s a Prickly Pear.”
Prickly Pear grow wild even in mild transitional desert climates such as in the middle of Los Angeles, where they line the no-man’s land beside the 405 Freeway. It’s easy to harvest the paddles, nopales – from the Nahuatl word nōpalli , and prepare them in any number of ways. The bulbs of the blooms, or tunas are also edible. You can find cactus paddles whole or cut and packaged in many produce departments, and they also come precut and preserved in glass jars on the Mexican food aisle.
To clean the paddles and remove the thorns, simply scrape lightly across the surface with a knife. It may be easier to handle the cactus paddle if you slice a very thin strip off one side, so you have a place to put your hand without being poked. Once tamed, the paddles can be sliced into strips or cubes, rinsed in a colander,patted dry with a paper towel and boiled with some onion, garlic and maybe even some Mexican oregano until tender, maybe about 20 – 30 minutes. At our house, we always keep a batch prepared and refrigerated, so we can grab them as a side dish, or to top salads or frijoles or to scramble with eggs.
Nopales are extremely low calorie (16 calories per 100 grams) and low on the glycemic index. They are rich in A, B and C vitamins and also possess mild anti-inflammatory properties which may help combat the symptoms of arthritis and auto-immune swelling, and are mucilaginous (slimy) which means they are great in aiding digestion. Nopales contain 7 different antioxidants, which when consumed regularly, can help to slow down aging processes. No wonder the Prickly Pears have been consumed since ancient times.
My mom, who normally lets me do all the cooking (Gee, I wonder why?) developed this scramble because she believes the nopales help alleviate her arthritis symptoms. She eats them every chance she gets. The trick with this recipe is to keep the eggs soft so that they provide contrast to the crisp fresh vegetables and salsa. This is one of those loose recipes, where you can add whatever vegetables you like, so feel free to take charge and get creative.
Ingredients (per person):
2 eggs (I use cage-free from chickens fed organic grain, but egg whites are another alternative)
1/4 cup cucumber sliced paper thin
1/3 to 1/2 cup cubed nopalitos
1/2 cup baby spinach
1/4 cup diced onions
3-4 cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
fresh minced garlic or garlic powder to taste
a big pinch of Mexican oregano
sea salt and pepper to taste, if desired
2 teaspoons coconut oil or 1 fat pat of butter for skillet preparation
1 tbsp. of Creamy Caesar or cilantro-pepita dressing (optional)
1. Melt oil or butter in skillet over medium heat
2. Add the cactus, cucumber, onion, spinach and tomato. Stir with a wooden utensil frequently until slightly softened.
3. Crack the eggs over the pan (don’t pre-beat the eggs) and stir into the vegetables. Add the dressing if you desire a creamy texture. Add the cilantro, oregano and garlic.
4. Stir continuously just until the eggs are set. Remove from heat and serve.
Serving Suggestions: I love this scramble accompanied by a bowl of salsa de tomatillo y cilantro (green tomatillo salsa) but any salsa or hot sauce makes a great topping. Organic blue corn tortilla chips work well to scoop these huevos revueltos right out of the bowl. Serve with fresh slices of avocado and tomato, and even a few crumbles of Queso Fresco or Cotija cheese to complete your breakfast feast.