Cooking Up Cactus: Surprising Health Benefits of Native Plants

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Cooking Up Cactus: Surprising Health Benefits of Native Plants
by Chef Chad Luethje

If you spend some time walking the grounds at Red Mountain Resort or hiking in and around Snow Canyon, you’ll notice that one thing that we have in abundance (besides beautiful red rocks, endless blue skies, and relentless sunshine) is cactus. One particular variety is a favorite of ours – its paddle-like leaves, colorful flowers, and ruby red fruit make the prickly pear easy to identify.

Chances are that even if you don’t recognize it on sight, you’ll experience it in our cuisine while you’re with us. We harvest both the leaves (known as nopales) and the fruit (we call them prickly pears, but the traditional name for this sweet fruit is tuna). Gathering these items isn’t complicated, but you’ll want a pair of heavy-duty work gloves and a long pair of tongs to protect yourself from the thorns, both big and small.

The leaves can be gathered year-round, while the fruit is ready to be picked from late September through mid-December. If you don’t have any cactus growing where you live, you can always find them at your local Latin American grocery store, where the de-thorned leaves are sold whole or already diced up and ready to be roasted, sautéed, grilled, etc.

Cactus is a traditional source of both food and folk medicine throughout Mexico and the desert southwest region of the US, and is a truly sustainable ingredient – it doesn’t require irrigation, fertilization, or cultivation to grow. I semi-jokingly refer to nopales as a “controversial” ingredient (much like cilantro) because it’s something that people generally either love or hate. This is because the cactus has a rather distinct, bitter flavor and can also have a slimy consistency. The fruit, on the other hand, is very sweet.

Both the fruit and leaves are a natural source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, including potassium and magnesium. Cactus water is a natural electrolyte that makes it a low-calorie, sustainable, and healthier alternative to sugary sports drinks and coconut water. Studies have indicated that cactus contains compounds which are helpful in reducing elevated blood sugar and cholesterol; in Mexico, it has been used to treat diabetes for many years. The gel that creates the sometimes slimy texture is useful for soothing burns, much like its cousin, the Aloe vera.

We utilize the cactus leaf in various ways, beginning by roasting it to simultaneously remove the thorns and cook it. Then, we incorporate it into salads with jicama, sweet citrus, roasted chiles, and vinegar, mix it into posole (green chile stew), or cut it into strips and add it to vegan tacos and scrambled eggs. The prickly pear fruit is roasted and boiled with sugar, water, and citric acid and used in sorbet, iced tea, lemonade, barbecue sauce, and cocktails at Canyon Breeze. You’ll also see it offered as an alternative to maple syrup with our pancakes.

Speaking of pancakes, another desert dweller that we incorporate into our cuisine is the bean of the mesquite tree. Although the thought of mesquite usually conjures up visions of smoky, delicious barbecued brisket or sirloin steak grilled over burning wood, the bean pods can also be harvested and milled into flour. The result is both gluten-free and high in protein, making it a good alternative for people looking to avoid gluten and white flours. It also contains a high amount of fiber, so unlike traditional white flours or sugars, it won’t cause blood sugar spikes and will actually help you feel fuller for longer. Mesquite also contains calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc. We regularly offer mesquite flour pancakes to go with our prickly pear syrup.   

If you happen to be visiting the resort in the later autumn months, you may see us out harvesting prickly pear fruit from our edible garden. We’ll be easy to spot – just look for the white coat, long metal tongs, and a five-gallon bucket. If you ask nicely, we’ll let you join in (or even let you take over the harvesting). Then we can meet up in the kitchen later to make prickly pear syrup, and maybe even bottle a jar or two for you to take home to your friends and family. In the meantime, enjoy those beautiful cactus flowers… from a distance.

About Chef Chad Luethje

Raised by health-conscious vegetarian parents, Chef Chad Luethje learned early on to appreciate and embrace a healthy lifestyle. He brings over 25 years of experience at luxury hotels, including Tucson’s Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa and the Teton Mountain Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to lead Red Mountain’s culinary team as executive chef and director of food and beverage. Explore his unique recipes on our blog or purchase our Inspired Eating cookbook.