How to peel and cook nopales, the prickly pear cactus
If your heritage is Mexican, you already know about nopales - the pads of opuntia ficus-indica, the prickly pear cactus. This species also produces the spiny, fruit-like reddish-purplish-green “pears” on its older pads, but they are a story for another day.
What you're after are the young, oval pads in season now.
You can find them already peeled, chopped and bagged in some general supermarkets but also, of course, in Mexican markets. Or you may have a friend who wouldn't mind you breaking off a few young pads. This cactus is ubiquitous around here. Go with new, young, flexible pads. Older ones are woody and inedible.
If you do harvest your own, wear rubber gloves. The pads' needles are very irritating. Before cooking, you have to peel off the little clusters of spines. Lay the pad flat on a cutting board and, with a sharp carving knife held almost parallel to the pad's surface, scrape the surface starting where it attached to the main cactus, and scrape toward the round end.
You can leave the green skin between the bunches of spines, but cut and scrape close enough to remove all the spiny growth. You should be able to run your hand over the scraped side of the pads without feeling any hard lumps that might contain the roots of spines.
When you've scraped both sides of the pad, use a vegetable peeler to scrape the spines and any small growths off the edges of the pad all the way around.
Nopales contain a sticky, viscous juice similar to that in okra, but it will cook off. They have a light, lemony, slightly acidic flavor, a little like bell peppers.
The pads are rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals. One cup contains 14 calories, 1.14 grams of protein and almost two grams of fiber, with almost no fat or sugar.
Once you've peeled away the spines, cut the pads into ¾-inch strips lengthwise, then cut these strips crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Put them in a colander and rinse them to wash away some of the slippery juice, then let drain.
After they're cooked, add them to huevos rancheros, tacos, burritos or fajitas or mix them with tomatoes and boiled potato cubes to make a side dish. Melt some queso on top for an extra treat. Or talk to your Latina friends about their favorite ways to prepare nopales.
This dish is a nutritious culinary treasure shared with everyone in the West and Southwest by our Mexican friends. Don't let those spiny pads intimidate you. You can do this.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
1 ½ pounds young, tender opuntia pads, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
2 cups water
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
4 garlic cloves, peeled; halve two and mince two
1 teaspoon sea salt, divided
4 scallions, white part and green tops, chopped
½ bunch cilantro, chopped
4 jalapeño chilies (or to taste), chopped
- Leaves from 7 stems of fresh oregano
2 small to medium tomatoes, chopped (optional)
2 boiled and cubed red potatoes (optional)
Peel, chop, rinse and drain the nopales.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of canola oil and the chopped nopales, the onion halves and 2 halved garlic cloves.
When the pads' juices are flowing, add the water. Stir occasionally over next 20 minutes, until the liquid resembles a thickened sauce. Reduce heat to medium.
Remove the large onion halves and the halved garlic cloves.
The pads will have lost their green color, which changes to olive.
Now add 2 more tablespoons of oil, chopped scallions, two minced garlic cloves, chopped jalapeños and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Stir to mix.
Cook over medium heat for 15 more minutes, adding the oregano leaves for the last five minutes.
If making a side dish, add the chopped tomatoes and potatoes for the last 15 minutes.
Serve hot as a filling for tacos or as a side dish.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org