Nopales for the Masses: A Mission to Bring Cactus to Valley Diners

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Monika Woolsey is on a mission to get Phoenicians to eat more cactus. As the proprietor of Hip Veggies, a business in the process of becoming a nonprofit, she is Arizona's most vocal nopales advocate, making it her goal to introduce people from all walks of life to the cactus food and reintroducing some Latinos and Native Americans to a food linked to their cultural histories.

If you've lived in Metro Phoenix for any amount of time, chances are good that you've seen nopales. They're the flat pads on the prickly pear cactus, a fixture in the desert landscape — but unlike kale and other superfoods, they rarely are seen on menus or advertised in grocery stores. The fruit of the same cactus, the prickly pear ("tuna" in Spanish) is commonly used in desserts and drinks.

It may not have made it onto many menus here (yet — check out our list of 10 Places in Metro Phoenix to Eat and Drink Cactus), but the plant has been a staple in Native American, Mexican, and many Latin American diets for generations. The eagle on the Mexican flag holds a nopal plant in its left foot.

Planting prickly pear cactus in the city is simple. Cut off a pod from a neighbor's cactus (with permission, of course) or purchase a plant at a nursery or a pad from a Hispanic market. Plant it. Water it every two weeks. It is best to use garden gloves. When you harvest, scrape off the needles, cut off the rim of the nopal pad and cook.

Nopales are drought­-tolerant succulents. The flat oval pads store water. When water is in short supply, openings on the pads begin to wilt, resulting in less water evaporation. This is a natural coping mechanism to lack of water, says Thomas Volo, graduate research assistant at Arizona State University, who studies water use and requirements of residential landscaping in the Phoenix area.

Oddly, many who plant cacti for water conservation do not actually conserve water due to a lack of knowledge about watering techniques, Volo says. They end up overwatering and reversing the water savings that could have occurred, Volo says. The plant is ideal for those who want to conserve water, he says.

So nopales are healthy (experts say they are even good for diabetes prevention), they are easy to grow, and they even help conserve water. Why aren't they more popular?

Joe Ray, a Hispanic local artist and collaborator with Woolsey in her Hip Veggies business, attributes the lack of nopal consumption to a need to assimilate into mainstream American culture. What's more, some Latino folks ate so many nopales as kids they're just sick of them, he says.

Monika Woolsey is on a mission to change that — and she's got some help.

On the first Saturday in April, Woolsey meets with chef Denise Atkins at Atkins' 1920s home in the Coronado District.

Atkins runs Denise Is Cooking, and today she is giving Woolsey and me a private class. The menu is all about nopales and prickly pear. Woolsey has brought along a bottle of prickly pear wine. Atkins will serve prickly pear sorbet and crepes filled with nopales, roasted corn, dried cranberries, roasted pine nuts, roasted green chiles, and goat cheese.

All the ingredients for the meal are spread on a small island in Atkins' kitchen.

The prickly pear sorbet will be infused with mint from Atkins's garden — simple syrup, sugar, water, and tuna.

"You want to pick prickly pear when they're super­soft, almost raw," Atkins says as she cuts the fruit in half. She scoops the pulp into the blender and mixes the ingredients. She pours the mixture back into the halved fruit and freezes it. Atkins scoops the mix into the blender, pours in prickly pear wine, and blends it.

The sorbet is a deep purple color with chunks of prickly pear.

"It tastes like a mix between watermelon and bubblegum," Woolsey says as she sips and considers the flavor.

Atkins moves on to the nopales crepe.

"I sauté them in oil until they're almost dried, to get rid of the stickiness inside," she says while chopping the pads.

Woolsey quickly reports the goo­like substance is actually healthy.

After the chile is peeled and cut, and the corn sliced off the cob, all the ingredients are mixed and rolled into crepes.

Once the crepes are done, they're slathered in mole sauce.

The final dish is creamy with crunchy, soft and chewy. Woolsey approves. "It tastes like a lemony green bean," she says.

Monika Woolsey was born in 1960 in Neubrücke, Germany. Her dad, Norbert, was in the Army and stationed in Germany.

He met his German wife, Brigitte, while she was working as a secretary.

Woolsey moved to Phoenix as a baby and grew up in the Valley. In junior high, the family moved to Tucson, where she lived until she graduated high school.

Holding on to culture is something Woolsey observed from her mother, who did what she could to maintain a connection to her German roots through food. Her mother was an avid gardener.

"She . . . did all these things my friends' moms didn't," Woolsey says. "At the time, I was a little embarrassed, but now I realize the value of having been around that and seeing that."

She graduated from Sabino High School in Tucson, then Cornell University. After school, she completed a one­-year nutritional internship with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.

"After a few years, I got tired of working with people who were already sick and wanted to work more in keeping them healthy," she says. Woolsey went back to school to earn her master's degree in exercise science at the University of Colorado.

As a dietitian, Woolsey says, she tries to understand her clients' cultures, then show them how to make their favorite dishes healthier.

In 2012, Woolsey founded Hip Veggies. She collaborates with artists and food professionals to promote and combat homelessness and awareness of hunger while promoting locally grown produce and supporting local artists, she says.

All the art is printed on canvas bags and sold at The Bees Knees, Co+Hoots, {9} The Gallery and The Urban Table.

Woolsey's nopales movement began when artist Joe Ray painted a nopal plant on a red background with "Shut up and eat your nopales!" written on it. The slogan was influenced by one of César Chávez's ads that advised "Boycott Lettuce. Eat Nopales."

From that came Nopalpalooza, a yearly art and culinary event put on by Hip Veggies. Woolsey is planning the next event in early 2015 during spring training.

Woolsey hopes to include more local chefs who cook with nopales, but her experience is that most don't know how to cook them or are turned off because of a bad experience. Her goal is to work one on one with them to create a variety of nopal dishes.

"One thing I really love about the Hip Veggies events is I can get people to come who normally wouldn't come to an event together. I'll have polarized Democrats and Republicans in the same room because they have this in common," she says.

When she started her business, she says, many were puzzled as to why she would want to help preserve someone else's native cultures through food.

"I think people look at me and don't trust that someone like me would have their best interest in mind," she says. "I feel sometimes that I may have to work a little bit harder to do what I do. I'm doing this because it's really important to me."

The first Nopalpalooza was held in 2012 at The Hive, an art gallery, coffee shop, nursery, and artist workspace on 16th Street in Central Phoenix. Woolsey also is working with The Hive to get sponsorships for local artists who participated in the Great Wall of Nopal — a mural by 25 artists, each of whom painted a piece incorporating nopal imagery.

Now, Woolsey's visions are taking her beyond the scope 16th Street. She is working with Pete Casillas, from Superior Chamber of Commerce in Superior (about an hour east of Phoenix). The two are working on an edible desert dinner featuring nopales and other native foods with Chef Gabriel Garfio of Sunnyside Breakfast Lounge in Mesa.

Currently they are working on setting a date for the event in October after the Hotel Magma in Superior rebuild and renovations are complete.

Woolsey has a vision of "community gardens in each city council district, where native foods are grown," she says.

"We can plant mesquite trees. We can plant nopales . . . That's what I want to do. Figure out a way that we can all blend where we don't lose our cultural identity and use our identity in food as a way for us to see the commonalities. And nopales is kind of the start of it all."

See also: Natalie Miranda Explores Her Own (Cactus) Roots

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