(TOM HARTE) [Order this photo]
That was the case with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his men who in 1540 set out to find the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola whose streets were said to be paved with gold. Traveling through what is now the southwestern United States and nearing starvation they resorted to the fruit of the cactus and soon fell ill. (To make matters worse, it turned out that the cities of Cibola were merely ordinary Zuni pueblos.)
Had Coronado thought to consult the native Indians, he and his men might have fared better, for they were hardly the first people to eat cactus. Native Americans have been consuming the plant for nearly 10,000 years. Had the Indians shared their knowledge about the right way to go about it, the Spanish conquistador would have learned what I learned recently while traversing some of the same territory in Arizona that Coronado tread: once you get past the prickly spines, believe it or not a cactus can be delicious.
If you've ever been to Tucson, Ariz., as I was recently, you know that cacti, some as tall as 60 feet and all ever so slightly menacing, are everywhere there. No wonder that sooner or later the natives thought of doing something with them. Thus, their sap has been used to sooth irritated skin, as an ingredient in chewing gum, a component of candles, and at the beautifully restored Mission San Xavier del Bac just outside of town, even an additive to strengthen mortar.
But given the fact that a cactus looks more ominous than appetizing, the culinary use of the plant is even more surprising. Yet there is hardly a way to prepare the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus that has not been tried, especially in the American Southwest and in Mexico, where the cactus is pictured on the national flag.
The pear-shaped fruit can be made into jams, jellies, syrups, and sauces, swirled into ice cream, put in a pie, used to make salad dressing, infused with tequila and citrus juice to make a Prickly Pear Margarita (a drink almost as ubiquitous as the cactus plant itself in Tucson, one of the first places to popularize it), and even as an ingredient in tiramisu.
Though you won't find fresh cactus pads in supermarkets here like you will in Tucson, you can get them canned or in jars, usually labeled "nopalitos" (from the Aztec word for cactus). Use them to spike your cooking, so to speak, and you'll agree that though it has the reputation as a water-bearing plant that saves parched souls lost in the desert, a cactus can be pretty good eating, too.
There are probably as many versions of this classic Mexican salad as there are of American potato salad. This one is adapted from the Hormel Foods Corp., which makes canned cactus pads under the Dona Maria label.
1 can (26 ounces) nopalitos (cactus pads)
1 and 1/2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 avocado, pitted, peeled, and cut into chunks
1 cup peeled and julienned jicama
1 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 jalapeno peppers, diced
6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup crumbled queso fresco
Drain and rinse nopalitos and combine with tomatoes, avocado, jicama, beans, corn, cilantro and peppers. Combine lime juice, oil, sugar and salt and mix well. Pour over nopalitos mixture and toss. Scatter queso fresco over top.
Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.