FORT LEE, Va. (March 8, 2011) -- Think whipping up a nutritional meal is a breeze? Try doing it with a pad of thorny cactus as one of six required ingredients.

That was the challenge facing Monday's competitors in the Nutritional Hot Food Challenge of the 37th Annual Military Culinary Arts Competition. Pentagon, Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Stewart, Ga., teams squared off. Each two-person team was armed with quail breast, whole grain couscous, a vegetarian protein mix, papaya, pine nuts and the thorny ingredient, a pad of nopales, the Spanish name for prickly pear cactus.

Ingredients change daily during the eight days of the nutritional challenge, but each mystery market basket includes a grain, an animal protein, a vegetable protein, a vegetable, a fruit and a nut or seed. The task is to cook in 90 minutes a 750-calorie meal that also meets the cholesterol, sodium and fiber requirements of the MyPlate standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Maj. Julie Rylander, a nutrition expert with the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence.

"We set them up for success," she said of the teams and the ingredients chosen for each day of the competition. "They will meet their nutritional goals as long as they stay away from fats, refined sugar and salt."

In addition to meeting the nutritional goals, teams must produce appetizers, entrees and desserts that look, taste and smell good, Rylander said. This is a culinary competition, after all.

As of Monday, four teams -- Fort Stewart, Fort Hood, the Coast Guard and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- had earned gold medals in the nutritional event. In 2011, only one team walked away with nutritional gold.

Teams have open access to a pantry in addition to their required ingredients. However, if they want to use refined sugar, salt or oil, for example, they are given measured amounts and watched to see how much they actually use in preparing their dishes.

How did the teams use their nopales pads Monday? Stewart added nopales to a salad, Bragg crafted a salsa stir fry that included the cactus and the Pentagon included nopales in a cream sauce that topped roasted baby vegetables.