Nopalitos offer a tasty intro to our desert foods

Diced, cooked cactus pads will be one focus of farmers market series
2013-05-15T00:00:00Z Nopalitos offer a tasty intro to our desert foodsLuis F. Carrasco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

They're definitely an acquired taste.

If you didn't grow up eating nopalitos, you could hardly be blamed for not thinking the spine-covered pads of the prickly pear cactus are delicious.

And if you did grow up eating them, well, there's always the slime.

"People just try to hide it or don't talk about it," said Amy Valdés Schwemm. "But putting it in mole 'hides' the slime texture and actually improves the sauce."

Slime and all, Valdés Schwemm is ready to convert people to enjoying the desert perennial through her nopalitos workshop Thursday at the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market (see accompany box for more information).

The free workshop is part of the 2013 Desert Harvester Series, which brings together local experts to highlight native foods that can go unnoticed.

"There is an awesome, thriving community of people who are huge advocates for native food," said Nadia Delgado, with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. "They have taken it upon themselves to really research and explore the history and nutrients of the food that's all around and that we can take advantage of."

For the food bank, which sponsors the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market, hosting the Desert Harvester series was a natural fit with its goals of closing the hunger gap and helping people feed themselves, Delgado said.

Other workshops coming up will focus on mesquite harvesting, bean trees, verdolagas and prickly pear fruit.

"Prickly pear fruit is an easy sell - everyone loves it," Valdés Schwemm said. "It has a little bit of a sweet taste and a beautiful color."

Desert plants not only taste good and are readily available, they're also healthy.

"The amazing thing to me is how beneficial (desert plants) are to our health, especially for people with diabetes," Valdés Schwemm said. "They can be used to replace things in people's diets that aren't as healthy, such as using mesquite flour to make pancakes."

For Valdés Schwemm, the health benefits don't simply extend to the high fiber and nutrient content in the food, but also the unprocessed nature of the plants.

Even if it doesn't say it on the label, producers are allowed to use ingredients in processing food that you may not want to eat, Valdés Schwemm said.

"The food that you're collecting from your own yard or your own environment doesn't have these ingredients," she said.

Bagged shredded cheese, for example, contains a wood pulp called cellulose that while not harmful, isn't particularly beneficial.

Whether people are interested in eating healthier or trying new foods, the workshops are designed to set participants on the path to enjoying desert plants, organizers said.

How far they travel, and how slimy it gets, is up to them.

2013 Desert Harvester Series

The Santa Cruz River Farmers Market is open Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. May through September and 3 to 6 p.m. October through April.

All workshops are 4-7 p.m.

Here's the topic lineup:

• Thursday: Nopalitos

• June 6: Mesquite harvesting

• June 20: Bean trees

• July 18: Verdolagas, also known as purslane or pigweed

• Aug. 15: Prickly pear fruit

ABOUT nopalitos

• They have a taste similar to green beans, but their texture is more like okra.

• May be eaten grilled, in a salad with onion and tomato, in scrambled eggs and in mole.

• Some studies show they are beneficial in the treatment of diabetes and high cholesterol.

• Nopalitos help maintain digestive health and are a good source of fiber.

Email Luis Carrasco at lcarrasco@azstarnet.com or call him at 573-4179.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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