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.