Grilled Cactus Pad Salad with Oranges & Raspberry Vinaigrette

This bright, satisfying salad recipe combines pre-Colonial ingredients like cactus pads and piñon (pine) nuts with navel oranges, a common food delivered to Indigenous communities via the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. This recipe is part of our spotlight, There's a Movement to Revitalize Indigenous Cuisines and Knowledge—Here's Why That Matters.

a recipe photo of the Cactus Leaf Salad
Photo: Nate Lemuel
Active Time:
25 mins
Total Time:
25 mins

This Grilled Cactus Salad Represents the Foods My People Survived On

In 1864, thousands and thousands of Navajos (Diné) were forced to walk more than 300 miles from their homelands near and around Canyon de Chelly to the Bosque Redondo Reservation (called Hwéeldi by the Navajos) in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This was called the Long Walk of the Navajo. After their sheep were killed, fruit trees cut down and all their corn crops burned, the Navajos were forced out of their traditional homelands and had no option other than to surrender to Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson.

Before the walk, some families hid seeds in pottery storage jars in small caves near where they lived, thinking that once they returned, they could use those seeds to plant new crops. The elders said that if they didn't make it back, to tell those that did where to find the hidden seeds so that they could start again. There is a place near where I live in Pinon, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, where the ancestors' seeds were hidden, that was shown to me by my late Grandma Susie.

a photo of Walter Whitewatwer
Nate Lemuel

During the Long Walk, there was little food. At least 200 Navajos perished on the journey.

According to my dad, they survived on wild foods they found while walking, including piñon (pine) nuts, small wild game and edible wild plants. One of those plants was the leaf of the nopal (prickly pear) cactus. The Navajos grilled the leaves over the charcoal embers of the fires they lit at night for warmth.

While the Navajo were forcibly confined at Bosque Redondo (Hwéeldi), they were denied the opportunity to practice their ceremonies, sing songs or pray in their own language. Food rationing was implemented and there was never enough to eat. Completely foreign foods, such as coffee beans and white flour, along with rancid meat, were distributed. A lack of wood for cooking and heating, along with the lack of healthy foods, led to illness during the bitterly cold winters. Approximately 1,500 more lives were lost due to starvation, sickness and exposure.

Four years later, the Navajos (Diné) signed a treaty with the U.S. government and returned to their homelands. On what is now the Navajo Nation, they planted new crops (some from those seeds that were stored before the walk) and once again raised sheep for wool and meat. They planted fruit trees and began the return to a new traditional diet, which included not only native crops but also foods issued by the U.S. government as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. When FDPIR first began in 1977, it primarily distributed commodity foods, such as lard, flour, sugar and canned meat. I grew up with these foods, standing in line to get some of them at my tribe's chapter house. This program is ongoing but today includes fresh vegetables and fruits, dry ingredients like rice and pasta, and frozen and canned foods. Each tribal community chooses which foods they want distributed to their community members.

Those that were part of the Long Walk didn't know how beneficial those cactus leaves were. Today, cactus is used as more than just food. Some medical professionals recommend that patients who are managing type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol eat cactus because of its high fiber content. (Fiber helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and reduce how much cholesterol is absorbed into our bloodstream.) I wanted to create a dish to honor those who made that Long Walk, using a mix of traditional foods that the Navajos relied on for nutrition then and new foods, like oranges, which are commonly distributed as part of the FDPIR program, as both the old and new foods are an important part of my people's history.


  • 2 cactus pads, washed

  • 1 large red bell pepper

  • 2 large navel oranges

  • 3 tablespoons low-sugar raspberry jam

  • 2 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon water

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • teaspoon kosher salt

  • ¼ cup toasted piñon (pine) nuts


  1. Preheat grill on High or use a grill pan.

  2. Holding the bottom of a cactus pad, gently scrape off thorns with a sharp knife. Place on a cutting board and trim the edge around the entire perimeter of each cactus pad and discard. Scrape off the remaining prickly bumps using a knife or spoon.

  3. Grill bell pepper, turning occasionally, until blackened all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let steam for 5 minutes. Grill the cactus, flipping halfway, until nicely charred, about 6 minutes. Transfer to the cutting board and let cool for 5 minutes.

  4. Thinly slice the cactus. (You may notice that the leaves release a slippery liquid, which is normal.) Remove and discard the skin and seeds from the bell pepper; thinly slice the pepper.

  5. Trim ends off oranges so they sit flat on the cutting board. Cut away the skin, rotating the orange until all the skin and pith is removed. Cut in between each segment, letting them drop into a small bowl. (Squeeze out any remaining juice from the leftover pith and reserve for another use, if you'd like.)

  6. Whisk jam, vinegar, water, mustard and salt in a medium bowl. Transfer 3 tablespoons to a small bowl. Add the cactus, bell pepper and orange segments to the medium bowl. Toss to combine. Drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons vinaigrette and sprinkle with piñon nuts. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)

113 Calories
6g Fat
15g Carbs
2g Protein
Nutrition Facts
Servings Per Recipe 4
Serving Size 1/2 cup
Calories 113
% Daily Value *
Total Carbohydrate 15g 5%
Dietary Fiber 2g 7%
Total Sugars 10g
Added Sugars 2g 4%
Protein 2g 4%
Total Fat 6g 8%
Vitamin A 1495IU 30%
Vitamin C 76mg 84%
Vitamin E 1mg 4%
Folate 32mcg 8%
Vitamin K 4mcg 3%
Sodium 100mg 4%
Calcium 65mg 5%
Iron 1mg 6%
Magnesium 24mg 6%
Potassium 226mg 5%

Nutrition information is calculated by a registered dietitian using an ingredient database but should be considered an estimate.

* Daily Values (DVs) are the recommended amounts of nutrients to consume each day. Percent Daily Value (%DV) found on nutrition labels tells you how much a serving of a particular food or recipe contributes to each of those total recommended amounts. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the daily value is based on a standard 2,000 calorie diet. Depending on your calorie needs or if you have a health condition, you may need more or less of particular nutrients. (For example, it’s recommended that people following a heart-healthy diet eat less sodium on a daily basis compared to those following a standard diet.)

(-) Information is not currently available for this nutrient. If you are following a special diet for medical reasons, be sure to consult with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to better understand your personal nutrition needs.

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