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.
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.
- Nopal licuado – cactus in a glass (cookinginmexico.com)
- Salsa de Nopal – the cactus in my kitchen (cookinginmexico.com)
- Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jicama and Beet (cookinginmexico.com)
- Nopal (Wikipedia)