How to Clean Nopal Cactus Pads without Becoming a Pin Cushion

It just took a few times of getting my hands full of cactus spines to decide I was never going to clean fresh nopal pads again. The spines were almost too tiny to see, even with my reading glasses. I needed those same glasses and a bright light to extract each minute spine with tweezers. The next thing I touched let me know I had missed one. Or several. From then on, I only ate store-bought nopales, because somebody else had already de-spined them for me.  A visit to my friend Linda’s garden and a taste of freshly picked nopales made me realize how much flavor I had been missing. It took Linda to point this out to me, as she removed each aureole of spines.

If you have your own nopal plant (also known as prickly pear cactus and opuntia) select young, small pads that do not yet have mature, large spines. These young pads are brighter green and usually small, though they can be large.

Anything is better when freshly picked, but something else is going on here. Nopales picked in the afternoon lack the pronounced fresh citrus, slightly acid flavor that an early morning picking can give. The difference is so great, that I was ready to brave the spines again and learn how to de-spine them under Linda’s direction so I could harvest my own in the morning. My fine opuntia specimen would no longer to be just an ornamental in my garden.

It could not have been easier, with a little attention to detail and a sharp knife. After first breaking off a pad, Linda used the knife tip to cut out the tiny spines bunched together in aureoles by shaving across them. Each aureole was slightly raised, making it easier to slice them off. Then she took off a thin slice of the edge of the paddle, where there are more aureoles. She was careful not to touch the remaining spiny aureoles as she repositioned the nopal in her hand. See the light spot at the base of each soft, green spine? That spot is an aggregation of spines so tiny, they are barely visible. That’s what was cut out.

If you are ready to rush off in the morning, after a quick cup of coffee, this trimming may seem slow going, cutting off each little aureole one at a time. It could be tedious, but Linda says she sees it as meditation, patiently focusing on the task at hand.

The morning bird calls and quiet garden setting added their own meditative qualities to the task.

When the nopal pad was trimmed of spines, Linda cut it into strips and handed me a piece to eat fresh. No salt, no lime juice. Just fresh nopal. The skin provided a soft crunch, followed by juicy, tender, slightly acid … cactus. I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say it was refreshing, lemony and like nothing else in the vegetable world. A good way to start the day.

Note:

Many instructions for cleaning nopales recommend wearing gloves, but I don’t think this is a good idea. The gloves will get full of tiny stickers, which can work through the glove or stick in your fingers when you take them off or pick them up again. I learned this the hard way.

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  1. #1 by foodieinberlin on January 28, 2011 - 11:26 am

    What beautiful colors and what an exotic way to start the day. It’s wonderful to see what you are up to in your sunny part of the world.

    • #2 by Cooking in Mexico on January 28, 2011 - 3:18 pm

      Compared to the winter others are having this year, I almost feel guilty enjoying our balmy climate. Almost. :)

  2. #3 by Lorin Johnson on January 28, 2011 - 2:57 pm

    I’ll bring a sharp knife one morning if you let me give it a try.

  3. #5 by Vicki in GA on January 28, 2011 - 2:59 pm

    I’m hungry for Nopales salsa.

    Do you make nopales and scrambled eggs?

    • #6 by Cooking in Mexico on January 28, 2011 - 3:07 pm

      Yes, I make that a lot. It is so easy, it hardly merits a recipe, but maybe I should write it up.

  4. #7 by Lyndsey on January 28, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    Not sure if this is a new post or a transfer…:D but I’m glad I saw it. I have a prickly pear cactus in my front yard. I was just noticing how big it has gotten, they do grow fast. I prepared them before and fried them, but it was not from my cactus tree. Thanks for the tip on picking them in the morning. I’ll have to try it tomorrow!

    • #8 by Cooking in Mexico on January 28, 2011 - 3:17 pm

      This is a new post. When you commented on the Walnutella post where I wrote about moving from Blogger to WordPress, that was on a post I wrote last April. I have happily been with WordPress since then.
      You are fortunate to have a prickly pear (aka nopal, genus Opuntia) in your yard. If you select the young pads before they are tough and spiny, in the early morning, you will taste the delightful citrus flavor.

  5. #9 by Lesley on January 28, 2011 - 4:30 pm

    I read the headline of this post and thought, “Why would I want to clean my own cactus? They sell them at the tianguis already de-spined!” But you have totally convinced me that I MUST try freshly picked cactus at some point in my life, ideally soon. It sounds amazing… up there with a corn tortilla hot off the comal.

    • #10 by Cooking in Mexico on January 28, 2011 - 4:59 pm

      Leslie, they are worth de-spining yourself, if that is the only way you can eat them with the fresh, lemon flavor. I had already had a few run-ins with their spines and had convinced myself it wasn’t worth the effort. After tasting them in the morning, and getting a lesson, I know it is worth the time. If you are half awake, you won’t get any spines in your fingers.

  6. #11 by sweetlife on January 29, 2011 - 12:49 am

    Glad you tried cleaning nopales, they are a labor but so worth it..we clean them every year with my grandma..

    sweetlife

    ps, I ordered Like water for chocolate it arrives tommorrow, thanks for the inspiration, I can’t wait!!

    • #12 by Cooking in Mexico on January 29, 2011 - 7:03 am

      I regret it took me so long to learn this simple procedure, but más vale tarde que nunca — better late then never.

  7. #13 by What is Nopalea on February 2, 2011 - 12:58 pm

    Thank you for this article — by the way your backyard is beautiful. Jealous up here in Minnesota right now …

    • #14 by Cooking in Mexico on February 2, 2011 - 5:22 pm

      It’s not my backyard, it’s my friend Linda’s. She has a green thumb, as you can tell.

  8. #15 by Nopalea on July 10, 2011 - 3:18 pm

    Thanks for the informative article and picture illustrations. They are very helpful. I wonder if this cactus can be grown in the states or is it best grown in areas where its tropical type weather all year round?

    • #16 by Cooking in Mexico on July 12, 2011 - 6:59 pm

      Nopal cactus, known as prickly pear cactus in the US, can be grown in many different conditions. It is found all over the southwest US.

  9. #17 by Charlotte on November 22, 2011 - 6:29 am

    Yes, I have them everywhere, and I’m so glad I found you on here! I live in Vermilion Parish, Abbeville, Louisiana, less than 75 miles from the coast and these cacti grow rampant on our property. When a friend of mine was talking about how great she felt after being on nopalea juice, I looked over only to see my cactus! I did not know you could eat them, so I’m heading out there now :)

    • #18 by Cooking in Mexico on November 22, 2011 - 4:01 pm

      Charlotte, Be sure to harvest just the young, tender ones. Another great way to have nopales is in salsa. My husband, who is not crazy about nopal, loves Salsa de Nopal.

  10. #19 by Ryan on February 12, 2012 - 11:13 am

    Wow thank you for all the usual tips on how too properly cut them off. I live here in the south west and have been recently intrigued with this type of plant. Thank you for the information though and the Salsa de Nopal looks amazing by the way. Will be book marking that page! :)

  11. #20 by Marla Moon on June 15, 2013 - 4:14 am

    do these grow in Florida?

    • #21 by Cooking in Mexico on June 15, 2013 - 1:42 pm

      Probably. Why don’t you contact your local agricultural extension agent and ask? Or you can buy them already de-spined at a Mexican grocery store.

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