How can cactus be palatable, let alone delicious? Known in English as the "prickly pear" cactus, this member of the opuntia genus produces the vegetable called nopal, sometimes referred to as "cactus paddles" in the Southwestern United States, and the fruit called tuna. Both have been used extensively in Mesoamerica, particularly by the Aztec and Maya people, since pre-Columbian times. The pads, or "paddles", are flat, hand-size vegetables, either green or purple, covered with spines (called agŁates in Mexico) which have to be removed before eating. The pads are high in vitamins A and C, as well as B complex vitamins and iron. The mucilagenous fluid contained in them, while boiled out for most recipes, is now extracted and used as a soluble dietary fiber supplement found in health food stores. The plants growing wild have, for purposes of survival, more spines than cultivated nopales. Almost all those sold commercially, whether in small Mexican mercados or US supermarkets, have the spines already removed. In many cases, the pads have also been cut up into small squares or strips called nopalitos. A common sight in Mexican markets is the nopal vendor, busy scraping the spines and dicing the pads, which are then ready for the shopper to take home and cook.
Harvest only the tender, young pads. Cut the pad from the main plant leaving about one inch. This stub will be the start of a new pad. Use a knife to cut out the spines and a vegetable peeler or brush to scrub the pads, which will remove any protruding nodes. (These nodes are the beginnings of new spines.) Once the pads have been cleaned, the nopales may be cooked by sauteing, boiling or grilling. I prefer to saute them in butter or olive oil as follows:
The finished product can be served as a stand-alone vegetable (tastes
something like green beans), added to salads or scrambled eggs, mixed
with sauted mushrooms and onions for a hamburger topping, or in any
number of other ways. Just enjoy!