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.