Nopales, or edible cacti, is mostly the flat rounded pads of Opuntia prickly pear cactus. They are common in Mexico and the southwest region of the United States, though they are increasingly found elsewhere. While it may pose a challenge to cook and eat, nopales is nutritious and tasty. The prickly pear can be foraged in areas where it grows wild, or you can find it in Latino markets and increasingly in regular grocery stores.
Also called cactus pads or nopalitos, edible cacti contains vitamins A and C, and are also a source of calcium and iron. Their crunchy texture goes well with salads. The prickly pear itself is a small fruit found at the top of the pads. The fruits are high in fiber and vitamin C, making them a delicious and nutritious addition to your diet. Sweet prickly pear fruits are especially good when used in smoothies or diced and eaten with cereal, or made into jelly.
You can eat edible cacti raw, or steam them lightly to retain the crunchy texture. First, you'll need to peel the skin and spines off and rinse well to make sure they are all gone. The edges should be trimmed to remove fibrous tissue. Don't steam them too long, or they'll get mushy. Cooked nopales is slightly sticky like okra, but when mixed with other ingredients this should not be noticeable.
Latino markets are usually the best place to find edible cacti if you don't want to forage for them yourselves. In areas where there is a significant Hispanic population they might also be available in the produce sections of large grocery stores. Look for pads that are firm and unwrinkled. If you live in the US desert southwest, prickly pear cactus grows wild nearly everywhere, to the point of being considered a pest plant. Nopales are easy to harvest from early spring through late fall; simply use a long-handled barbecue fork or tongs to hold them and cut them off at the base.
Raw cactus has a light, tart flavor described as similar to a lemony green pepper or asparagus. They can be sprinkled in salads, boiled, fried, or mixed with other vegetables and spices for a tasty southwestern stir-fry. The pads are good sautéed in butter or oil also. Edible cacti is often sold pickled and ready-to-eat in cans or jars, and the fruit as jelly or preserves.