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Nopales cactus are all over Sonoma County, including at Luther Burbank’s Home and Garden, where an enormous plant from Burbank’s era thrives to this day. Both the paddles and the fruit, known as tunas, are edible.

The tale of Burbank’s work with the nopales cactus is, today, nearly the stuff of legends.

“Give up your thorns,” Burbank, who talked to the plants he worked with, said.

“I will protect you, “ he continued, adding “you have nothing to fear.”

Burbank envisioned planting his thorn-free cactus in the desert, where cattle would graze on it.

He was right in his suspicion that cattle would love the meaty cactus paddles but wrong when it came to the protection he offered. The cattle liked the nopales so much that they ate them down to the quick and they were unable to regenerate.

Nopales has another interesting connection, not to Sonoma County specifically, but to your red lipstick, should you wear it.

The color red has intrigued humans for centuries and, likely, longer. Red dye is very difficult to make and through much of human history the wearing of red has been reserved for royalty, as has blue, purple, and gold.

It wasn’t until the cochineal insect — typically referred to, inaccurately, as a beetle — was discovered as a source of red dye that the color began to be within reach of the average person.

Today, there are many options for dying materials red but cochineal is still an important source, especially in such things as food and cosmetics, including that gorgeous red cream many of us like to smear on our lips. Other dyes are synthetic and harmful to humans.

Yep, that gorgeous red is made from ground up bugs. And nopales cactus has played a role, as the plant has been used as an incubator of sorts, housing the young insects until it is time to harvest them. It takes thousands— up to 70,000 — to make a single pound of the scarlet-colored creatures. It’s a nice bit of trivia to pull out at dinner.

But back to nopales paddles, which are best from right about now through fall.

You can find them in Latino markets--sometimes sold as whole paddles; sometimes trimmed and diced — and at many local farmers markets. If you buy the paddles, you’ll need to remove the thorns, as Burbank did not get the plants to shed them entirely.

They are very small now but you’ll still need a sharp pairing knife to cut out each one. If you buy them trimmed and diced, the thorns have been removed.

Nopales paddles release a slightly slimy liquid when they are cooked, much as okra does. This quality turns off a lot of people but there is a very simple fix. All you need to do is put the diced nopales into a dry pan over medium heat and cook them, stirring now and then so they don’t burn. They release their liquid very quickly and then it evaporates.

The nopales can then be used in a huge array of dishes, in tacos, queso fundido (melted cheese with soft tortillas), soups, stews, and more.

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This dish is a variation of the classic Spanish tortilla, which has nothing to do with the flat breads we call tortillas.

Rather, it is similar to a frittata, typically made with onions, garlic, and potatoes and often served with allioli, the Spanish version of aioli.

Here, I’ve added nopales and prefer to serve the tortilla either with a traditional tomato salsa, avocado salsa, or radish salsa

Nopales Tortilla
Serves 4 to 6

8 ounces trimmed and diced nopales

1/2 cup olive oil, plus more as needed

1 small yellow onion, cut into small dice

— Kosher salt

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds potatoes, cooked, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices

1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika

1/2 teaspoon hot Spanish paprika

— Black pepper in a mill

8 large farm eggs

Set a heavy skillet — cast iron is perfect — over medium heat, add the nopales, and cook until they release their liquid, about 8 to 10 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary so that the nopales do not brown.

When their liquid has been released, continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the pan is dry. Transfer the nopales to a bowl and return the pan to the heat.

Pour about 3 tablespoons of the olive oil into the pan, add the onion, and sauté slowly until it is very soft, fragrant, and beginning to take on a bit of color, about 25 minutes. Add the garlic cloves, sauté 2 minutes more, season with salt, and transfer to the bowl with the nopales.

Add about 3 tablespoons more of the olive oil, increase the heat to medium, and add the potatoes. Cooking, turning now and then, until the potatoes are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Season with salt, the paprika, and several turns of black pepper. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Break the eggs, one at a time, into a medium bowl and whisk well, as you would for an omelette. Gently fold in the nopales, onions, and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Wipe the skillet clean, add the remaining olive oil, and set over medium high heat.

When the pan is hot but not smoking, pour in the egg mixture and let cook for 2 minutes without disturbing it. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook until the bottom and sides are golden brown and the eggs are beginning to set.

Loosen the edges of the tortilla with a thin rubber spatula or thin knife. Set a flat plate the same size or slightly larger than the pan on top and turn everything--the pan and the plate--over, setting the plate on a solid work surface so that the tortilla drops down onto it.

Do not lift the pan until you are certain the entire tortilla has dropped.

Return the skillet to the stove and if it is very dry or if any food as stuck to its surface, remove the food and lubricate the pan lightly with a little more olive oil.

Slide the tortilla, cooked side up, into the pan and cook until the eggs are fully set, about 3 to 4 minutes more. Do not over cook.

Remove from the heat, let rest 5 minutes, cut into wedges, and enjoy warm.

Traditional chorizo tacos typically combine the meat with scrambled eggs. Here, the chorizo is joined by potatoes and nopales for a light but deliciously satisfying spring meal.

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Chorizo, Potato, & Nopales Tacos
Serves 2 to 4

8 ounces nopales paddles, trimmed and cut into small dice

3/4 pound bulk Mexican-style chorizo (see Note below)

1 small yellow onion, cut into small dice

1 medium potato, scrubbed and cut into small dice

— Kosher salt

1 lime, cut in half

— Black pepper in a mill

8 corn tortillas

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1 lime, cut in wedges

8 radishes, trimmed

— Mexican hot sauce of choice

Set a heavy skillet--cast iron is ideal--over medium heat, add the nopales, and cook until they give up their liquid, about 8 to 10 minutes. Continue to cook until all of the liquid has evaporated. Transfer the nopales to a dish and return the skillet to the heat.

Add the chorizo and use a fork to break it up as it cooks. When it has lost its raw look, reduce the heat to low, add half the onion, and cook gently until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the potato, turn the mixture gently, season with salt, and cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the lime juice, taste, correct for salt, add several turns of black pepper. Cover and remove from the heat.

Heat the tortillas in a dry pan or over an open border until they are hot and tender; do not let them burn or become crisp and wrap them in the folds of a tea towel to keep them warm.

To assemble the tacos, set two tortillas on top of each other on four plates. Divide the chorizo mixture among the tortillas. Top with some of the remaining onion and the cilantro. Garnish with lime wedges and radishes and enjoy right away, with hot sauce alongside.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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