I have some prickly friends.
For some reason, I attract people with social problems. Maybe it’s my charisma. Or maybe I just emit weird pheromones that are undetectable to the masses. Whatever it is, I’ve had friends that are reclusive bachelors… friends that are consistently offended over nothing important… and a fair share of cougars. My wife keeps me safe from the last category… though there was this one time a wine-glass toting, heavily made-up woman in her 40s backed me into an elevator at an art reception and…
Where was I?
Oh yeah. Prickly. Somehow I was going to segue-way into cactus…
Sorry. That was obnoxious. I promise you I’ll get to the point now, which is: cactus are prickly friends.
They hang around when you don’t want them, and they’re a pain to deal with. Sometimes they even hurt you on purpose. However, unlike your regular prickly friends, you can eat most cactus. (I suppose you could eat people, too, but we at The Prepper Project in no way condone cannibalism unless someone looks really, really delicious. So your friends are basically out.)
Early this year I visited a place in Gainesville called the Edible Plant Project and bought a spineless “nopale” cactus. This is apparently a type of prickly pear (a variety of Opuntia) that was spineless except for a few tiny glochids (those are little bitty spines that can make you itch).
Why do I say “apparently” a variety of prickly pear? Well, pad cactus aren’t the easiest thing in the world to classify… yet that’s not too big a worry. I’ve not found any record of poisonous Opuntia species… and I’ve eaten quite a few.
Here’s what my cactus looks like:
Contrary to popular belief, cactus aren’t just a hot-weather desert plant. There are edible pad cactus spread across most of the United States, including Alaska. Here in central Florida, farmers hate the wild varieties that pop up, since they can’t be eradicated by mowing. In fact, when you mow through a patch of cactus, it breaks them up into pieces… and many of those pieces will root and form new cactus plants. Mowing increases the population, rather than decreasing it. This is a good thing for those of us that like to eat cactus – but it’s not a good thing for the poor folks trying to grow hay.
Now at this juncture you’re probably wondering how in the world to eat a cactus.
Most of us are familiar with the prickly pear fruit. Upscale grocery stores often carry them as a novelty in their fruit sections. The true prickly pear fruit is about the size of a plum with a rich red/purple juice and a berry-like flavor. Just watch out for the seeds – they’re hard as rocks. A prickly pear is worth growing just for its fruit; however, it gets better than that.
The “pads” of a cactus are also edible. Not only that, most species I’ve tried are delicious. They have a flavor somewhere between green beans and okra, with a little bit of saltiness to them.
Preparation is key with cactus. If you pick the pads young, before their spines develop, you’re good to go – but if you pick them after spines appear, be careful. Even the tiny glochids are really, really annoying. They’ll itch and sting and burn for quite a while and they’re really hard to see and pull from your tormented skin. Many “spineless” varieties still have these little fuzz-like spines, so watch out.
Some people will tell you that a blast of water is the best way to remove these little spines. My favorite method, however, is fire. Skewer a pad and turn it over an open flame. Voila! No glochids.
The bigger spines are easy to remove with the end of a carrot peeler. Just core them right outta there.
Once the spines are gone, chop up the pads and use them however you like. I enjoy them in stir-fries and with eggs, but they’re also really good in Dave’s Cactus Chili Of Death. Want the recipe?
Alright, here you go.
Dave’s Cactus Chili Of Death (serves 8)
1-2 lbs ground beef or sausage
1 or 2 large onions
1 #10 can of kidney beans
A couple cans of tomato sauce or tomato paste and extra water
2-3 cactus pads with spines removed
Spices and hot peppers and stuff
Fry ground beef/sausage in lard (if you have it, if not use whatever wussy oil you have laying around) along with chopped up onions, some hot peppers (I like cayenne, habenero and jalapeno varieties) and diced cactus pads in the bottom of a big pot. When they look good and cooked, pour in your beans and tomato sauce or paste.
You want it thin enough so it doesn’t burn, but not so thin that the chili is watery.
At this point, you make magic happen by adding in as many of these things are you have available: Mexican seasoning, chili powder, paprika, ground red pepper, smoke seasoning, garlic powder, steak seasoning, Texas Pete hot sauce (or equivalent), black pepper and salt. Taste regularly to make sure you’re balancing the flavors correctly. You want a meaty, smoky, spicy chili. Keep messing with it until it’s perfect.
Serve in a big bowl with shredded cheddar and a dollop of sour cream. Unless you’re very pregnant, be sure to also drink at least 24 oz of beer with it. 32oz is better. 48oz is too much.
As a final note on cactus, don’t overlook them as an edible when prepping. They’re widely available, have a hearty goodness to them, and they’re easy as heck to grow in most of the country. To propagate, just find ones you like and plant their pads… I’ve done that for years and enjoyed having them around.
Unlike my other prickly friends.