1 July 2007

Low GI Food of the Month

Nopales – the flesh pads of the prickly pear cactus
Nopales (with the spines removed) are a traditional ingredient in Mexican cuisine and widely available in Mexican food markets (and some in the US). They are a good source of calcium and vitamin C and contain beta-carotene and iron. They have a small amount of carbohydrate and an amazingly low GI – 7. Sometimes called ‘edible cactus’ or ‘cactus pear pads’, nopales are usually sold ‘despined’ although you’d probably have to trim the eyes with a vegetable peeler to remove any remaining ‘prickers’. They can be diced for salads; steamed quickly as an accompaniment (the texture should be crunchy); added to soups, salsas, stews, stir-fries, fillings for scrambled eggs or tortillas; or stirred into Mexican-style recipes with chilli, tomatoes and corn. Chef and cookbook author Peter Howard (Delicious Living and Delicious Entertaining out this month) says that he doesn't know of the pads being used in Australia: 'But years ago the fruit was marketed as Indian figs and made great sorbets and ice drinks with an absolutely delicious flavour. However, it was destined to injure the thousands of people who picked them up with naked hands!'

A new study in May 2007 Diabetes Care by Bacardi-Gascon and co-workers from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California found that adding nopales (the fleshy pads) to a meal reduced blood glucose spikes after eating. The researchers recruited 36 volunteers (average BMI was 25) with type 2 diabetes aged between 47 and 72 and, after an 18-hour fast, assigned them to eat one of three typical Mexican breakfasts – scrambled egg and tomato burritos, chilaquiles (cheese, beans and tomato sauce with corn tortillas), or quesadillas with avocados and pinto beans, with or without 85 grams (about 3 oz) of nopales. The blood glucose levels of the volunteers who ate the nopales with their meal were 20–48% lower (depending on the type of meal) than those volunteers who ate the test breakfasts on their own.


The following recipe is from The Prickly Pear Cookbook by Carolyn Niethammer, www.cniethammer.com which contains 60 recipes from chefs around the world along with full-color photos of each dish. (Rio Nuevo Press, 120 pages, fully illustrated in color, $14.95, www.rionuevo.com).

Classic Mexican Nopalito Salad
Makes 2 servings

2 medium nopales, cleaned
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons finely minced onion
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped green chillies, canned or fresh
1 or 2 finely minced Serrano chillies
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons finely crumbled queso fresco blanco, queso fresco or feta cheese


  • Preheat oven to 190ºC/375ºF.
  • Cut nopales in strips about 2.5 cm/1 inch wide. Brush on both sides with vegetable oil and arrange on a cookie sheet. Roast for 10 minutes or until they have become olive green, then turn piece over to cook the other sides. When cool, slice each strip into pieces the width of a wooden matchstick and half as long. Combine in a medium bowl along with the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.
  • Refrigerate until ready to serve on lettuce leaves or as a stuffing for hot-off-the-griddle corn tortillas.


Anonymous said...

Liane Colwell, chef, gastronomer, and proprietor of Exotic Catering sent us this comment to post.

'Nopales, pronounced noh-PAHL [ie emphasis on the second syllable is a'paddle' from the Opuntia cactus, most prolific in central Mexico, where they are available year round. They are most tender and delicious in spring of course and heavily utilised in salads after being cooked.

They are often recommended to be boiled in water for 10-20 minutes but this will reduce the nutrient density. Try cooking for less time and try gently sauteeing. They tend to exude a mucilaginous substance, not unlike okra, and this needs to be rinsed off to be acceptable to western palates, though it is reputed to be of medicinal value. Nopales are available canned in
Australia, but sadly the canning process makes them unacceptable in culinary terms as much flavour and the crisp texture is lost. Canning would also increase the GI though it wouldn't necessarily make it unacceptably high.

If purchasing fresh, they need at least as much care as chiles, their traditional accompaniment in salads with queso cheese.

Best advice: get friendly with some Mexicans and ask them about their source and any tips for preparing them. Mexican cuisine is one of the most undervalued in the world and the one most prone to bastardisation [or 'contamination' in gastronomic terms].

To master the art of making moles, recados etc is to be richly rewarded. Mexican food is NOT about tons of deep-fried tortillas, grated cheddar and lashings of sour cream. Rather it based on lovingly toasted nuts, seeds, fresh citrus rinds, and a stunning variety of chiles, which afficionados describe like premium wines; chocolate notes, hints of berry and so on. No cuisine uses texture more cleverly than the Mexicans. They will, for example make sauces based on both roasted and raw tomatoes, roasted and raw onion and so on. The moles take hours and hours to make, but the tastes are incomparable. Leftover mole can be used on gourmet rolls, or even as a base for a braise or soup. Enjoy!'

Anonymous said...

prickly pears seem to be a healthy choice then (low GI and tastes great) - but it's a bit expensive here in Sydney. i'm not sure how it is in the US.

Anonymous said...

As Mexican myself, it brought a huge smile that the Nopal was designated the Low GI food of the month, and the published article complemented by Ms Liane Colwell’s post are spot on.

Here in Mexico, nopales have been eaten as part of our home cooking since pre-Hispanic times, and also they have been recommended for many years as an aid to the diabetics and even in weight control.

Mexican cuisine is more pro Low GI than people believe, I’m a follower of the diet (excellent one) and changes/adaptations based on the Low GI guidelines have been seamless into my mexican home cooking. Like all cuisines, bad choices and huge portions are reflected in our waistline and health.

Another way to eat Nopales (If you manage to get them fresh), is to put the whole cleaned-of-thorns leaf on a BBQ grill or on a hot plate: When it’s ready (it acquires a deep olive colour), then squeeze lemon juice, sprinkle some chopped cilantro (coriander) and season with salt and pepper. Indeed you can experiment with other toppings.

Anonymous said...

El nopal licuado con pepino o un poco de jugo de cualquier fruta es muy saludable, pero tiene que ser en ayunas

Anonymous said...

Sounds delicious - sorry that we can't reply in Spanish.