Pins and Needles

dining cactusEver eat a cactus? Many parts are edible. Learn how to cook this plant, and taste entries from the cactus cook-off at Santa Cruz’s Festival del Nopal in the street in front of the downtown library on Sunday, July 22.

Nopales were an important food source for the Aztecs, and Mexico’s coat of arms features a golden eagle perched atop an Opuntia, whose name is derived from the Nahuatl word for pad. Today, jams, jellies and sorbet are made from the juice of the plant’s fruit, and at a rib joint in Scottsdale, sweet, prickly pear syrup is added to a sensational margarita.

The green, spiked pads are stems that bear fruit. The fruit and even the pads have tiny barbed hairs called glochids. They cause pain and itching when lodged in the skin, and must be removed. Swallowing any is very uncomfortable.

Use tongs or wear heavy gloves when preparing the produce. The pads are readily skinned with a knife or potato peeler. For the fruit, I prefer burning the hairs off over a gas range or with a kitchen torch.

To peel the fruit, cut a half inch off the top and bottom, then make a shallow cut lengthwise through the skin, and peel it off as you would an avocado. Although the seeds are edible, they are very hard. To make juice, purée the fruit in a blender and strain through cheesecloth. Four fruits will yield about a cup.

At the festival, the mercado will open at 10 a.m. Performances, including live music and Ballet Folklorico featuring brightly costumed traditional dancers will begin at noon.

Contestants for the Festival Queen have been selling one-dollar raffle tickets to benefit scholarships since April, and the most successful seller will be crowned queen on Sunday afternoon.  | KP

Third Annual Festival del Nopal, Sunday July 22, market opens at 10 a.m., and free program runs between noon and 6 p.m. 224 Church St., Santa Cruz. Visit festivaldelnopal.com.

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