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>> Stuck on cactus : 'Nopales' could be the next health-food craze

Stuck on cactus : 'Nopales' could be the next health-food craze
For The Times

Reesa Crisson tentatively touched a thorn and then yanked her hand back.

"I wouldn't know how to cook this," she said, referring to the paddle-shaped arm of a prickly pear cactus, or nopal, one of Mexico's signature vegetables known in Spanish as "nopales."

"I've had the kind that's canned in brine, but I think I'd like it better fresh if I knew how to get rid of these little stickers."

Crisson, 31, from Dahlonega, and her friend Amanda Daniel, who speaks fluent Spanish, were browsing in the produce department of J&J Foods in Gainesville. They looked to another shopper for advice.

"First, you have to scrape the spines with a knife like this," explained Belen Reyes, making rapid downward motions.

Speaking in Spanish translated by Daniel, Reyes, who is from Mexico, rattled off the ways she enjoys preparing nopales (called "nopalitos" in their sliced form): sauteed and mixed with scrambled eggs; garnished with pico de gallo; deep-fried; basted with oil and grilled alone or stuffed like a pita with cheese; served as a side salad with steak at family cookouts.

"I even eat them raw as an appetizer to help my digestion and keep me regular," she said proudly.

However, the main reason Reyes, a diabetic, consumes so much cactus is the plant's apparent effectiveness in lowering blood sugar and cholesterol.

"My doctor in Mexico told me to eat nopales," she said. "My blood sugar was 400 and now it's 200. I feel much better and don't need as much insulin. It cleanses the blood and the system. Even if it didn't, though, I would eat it anyway because it tastes good."

Reyes held up the nopal pad and beamed, looking for a moment like one of the regal campesinas who still haul crops to market by burro in Guanajuato. She was showing off the plant that, with its nutrients, versatility and distinctive flavor, is expected to blossom into the next health-food craze, like a Latin cousin to soy and hemp products.

The prickly pear cactus belongs to the genus Opuntia, and the species most commonly harvested for food is ficus-indica, which translates as "Indian fig," which multitasks as a fibrous vegetable, sweet fruit and rose-like flower.

Nopales are thought to help in the treatment of more than 100 ailments, from hangovers to AIDS, and the sap doubles as an acne-fighting soap and beauty aid. Still, the primary uses are for diabetes and cholesterol management, an ancient Latin American home remedy now under clinical study in the United States. One in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, so herbalists are buzzing about a nopuntia-rich diet.

Jose Avila seemed bemused by this "discovery" of nopales, which are as commonplace as potatoes or corn in the Mexican diet.

"We've always eaten cactus in a lot of different forms as a regular part of our cuisine, a staple," he said. "It seems to be becoming a trend here now. My brother has an American friend who is eating it regularly for his diabetes."

Avila sells nopales products, including their sweet, low-cal fruit, called "tunas," at his supermarket, El Sol de Mexico, in Gainesville. He grew up in Zacatecas, which he said is the second leading cactus-producing state in Mexico. "To us, it's no big deal," he said. "We just eat it because we like it."

In fact, the cactus is to Mexico what apple pie is to the United States. According to lore, the country's founders were looking for an oracle's sign about where to build their capital. They saw an eagle perched on a cactus that was growing out of rock in the middle of a lagoon. The spot eventually became Mexico City, and the cactus appears on the national seal and flag.

Packing vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and other body boosters, prickly pear cactus has been turning up in a variety of home remedies and ritual potions since ancient Aztec times. About 20 years ago, ethnobotanists began conducting clinical research to see if the curanderas, or spiritual healers, were on to something. Many of these findings are collected in "Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine" (Healing Arts Press, 2004), by nutritionist Ran Knishinsky.

"Its utility as a nutritional, high-fiber, low-fat food is amplified by this unique and exquisite amino acid profile," he writes. "Vegans and vegetarians ... will find in the nopal pads a source of high-quality protein."

Studies published in "Diabetes Care" and "The Journal of Ethnopharmacology" support the effectiveness of the plant in treating Type II Diabetes and in reducing glucose absorption and improving insulin response in general.

Knishinsky suggests the following daily dosages for people working to manage their blood sugar: 500 grams of broiled nopal pad or four ounces of juice. Also, the plant's high flavonoid content may reduce low-density lipids, or "bad" cholesterol. Knishinsky recommends five to nine grams of prickly pear fruit pectin a day.

In an experiment at Tulane University that did not have to scrounge for volunteers, 55 subjects were given plenty of hard liquor and sent to drink the night away in New Orleans for the sake of science. Time magazine reported earlier this year that those who took prickly pear cactus extract before the binge suffered less nausea and dry-mouth the next day and boasted a 40 percent higher level of C-reactive protein, which may play a role in hangovers.

Still, many folks north of the border, unable to make the imaginative leap past the thorns, still treat nopales as the porcupine of food.

"It's something people here are acquiring a taste for," Avila said. "In the beginning, it might taste weird and have a strange texture, but you get used to it and then grow to like it a lot."

Asked for a description, most cactus connoisseurs use phrases such as "tangy green beans" with a "bell pepper aftertaste."

Because they belong to the succulent, or water-conserving, family of plants, the cooked veggies have the viscous, gooey feel of okra.

"This is the way I usually prepare it for my family," said Sonia Suarez, stirring the greens in a skillet of boiling water. A culinary ambassador based in Athens, she travels around the state to hold professional cooking demonstrations for Plantation Specialty Foods.

She mixes the boiled nopalitos with garlic, diced tomato, onions, jalapenos and Mexican cheese, to make a side salad or salsa-like dip.

"My mother taught me how to make this, and her mother taught her," Suarez said.

In "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico," Diana Kennedy, the Julia Child of kitchens south of the border, writes that this simple recipe is her favorite way to prepare nopalitos and liven up the colors of a dinner table spread.

"See how slick they are?" Suarez said. "I'm not using any oil in this. You don't need to."

The cactus craze started in the Southwest and is working its way east with the immigration patterns of Hispanics, said Leo Martin, a director of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Reesa Crisson and Amanda Daniel, who work together in a Gainesville office and share a large circle of Latin-American friends, said they welcome these additions to the local cuisine and culture.

"I read a survey that showed how salsa is outselling ketchup now and tortillas outsell bread," Daniels said.

Crisson, observing that Southerners and Latinos both value the sustaining food of "hospitality," said it was her friends' gifts of Hispanic food that finally lured her mountain-man father to the table when he was dying of cancer and losing his appetite.

"Every week I find some homemade ethnic snack waiting for me at work and some invitation to dinner," she said. "These are not just token gestures to satisfy some preconceived notion of 'mi casa es su casa.' No, the Latinos really mean it. I, personally, have never been around people, other than my family, who are so gracious with their food."

E-mail: lifestyles@gainesvilletimes.com.

Originally published Sunday, July 3, 2005

Source: http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/news/stories/20050703/localnews/118953.shtml


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