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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Salad of grilled nopal with carrot, jícama and beet

Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet owes its existence to two inspirations. The first was a conversation with my friend Maria who told me about a salad of grated jícama and beet dressed with freshly squeezed lime juice she makes for her boys. When she told me about it, I pictured the garnet color of beets set against the clean white of jícama, forming a palette of edible art. I accented the colors with the addition of carrots to make it even more brilliant. The second inspiration was a photo of a nopal cactus pad serving as the “plate” for a banana dish featured on the cover of the 2011 calendar by Muy Bueno Cookbook. I wanted to make this salad and I wanted to eat it off of a nopal, one of my favorite Mexican veggies.

Nopales are the young pads of prickly pear cactus and dished up in many Mexican restaurants as a salad or appetizer. I like to seek out new and unusual foods — part of the joy of being a foodie in Mexico —  and learned to love nopales many years ago.  Most of my friends make a face when I mention nopal and say something like, “Oh, it’s so slimy!” Well, yes it is if it is overcooked. The secret is to cook nopal only until it starts to get tender, but still has its crunch and most of its green color. If it has turned gray and has slimy threads oozing out, sorry, but you cooked it too long. And I have to say that en mi opinión, most Mexican cooks overcook nopales. You will have to cook it for yourself to see how fresh and crisp it can be.

See a past article from Cooking in Mexico on preparing jícama if you are not familiar with it.

Update: this recipe for Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet has been selected as the winning entry by Muy Bueno Cookbook for their calendar give-away contest. (Dec. 28, 2010)

Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet serves 4

  • 4  small, tender nopal cactus pads
  • olive oil
  • 1 large raw carrot, peeled and grated
  • 1 large jícama, peeled and grated
  • 1 large raw beet, peeled and grated
  • freshly squeezed lime juice
  • coarse sea salt
  1. Pre-heat your grill.
  2. Brush nopales with olive oil and grill no longer than 1 minute per side. (Thicker, more mature nopales may need more time.)
  3. Arrange grated vegetables on the nopales.
  4. Serve with a cruet of olive oil, wedges of lime and sea salt.

Notes:

Nopal is from the Nahuatl word for pads, nopalli. A branch of the Uto-Aztecan language, Nahuatl is still spoken in Mexico today.

Many families have a few nopal plants in their yard to supply the table, and they are also common in supermarkets, large and small. Look for young, small pads that are bright green. Don’t worry about any cactus spines — they are removed at the grocery store.

Nopales are rich in fiber, vitamins A, C and K, as well as high in minerals. When eaten in a mixed meal, it is thought that nopales reduce the glycemic effect.

Avoid nopales that are in cans or jars. They will be gray and limp and will make a poor introduction to this great vegetable.

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