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An Obsession with Cactus:Like Love, It Can Really Hurt

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Ingredient Spotlight

The following is an article I wrote last year that didn't get published. I just reread it and thought it was pretty good! Some of the information may be redundant for regular readers.

Nopales
Tunas, not quite ripe. Rancho Gordo.

One of the highlights of last summer was a glorious barbecue with all the usual suspects: wine, grilled meats, tequila, good friends, salad, music, etc. The surprise was when my Mexican friends brought cleaned cactus paddles and grilled them along side the sausages. After one side was finished, one of the paddles was turned, then topped with grated Oaxacan cheese and topped with another paddle. After this cactus "sandwich" was finished, it was removed from the fire and smothered in a fresh salsa made with local heirloom tomatoes. As far as I was concerned, a new tradition was born right then and there.

Nopales are succulents in the Opuntia family and you spy them all over the Bay Area. They’re somewhat majestic and scary. They remind many of us of whales. They seem to grow slowly and they seem to survive no matter how much neglect they receive. Among fanciers of succulents and other cacti, they are considered rather low on charts, but I'd take a yard full of prickly pear cactus over the exotic blue ribbon winners any day. The trick is that Nopales, in addition to their landscaping talents, showy flowers and and off-beat weirdness, taste great, both as a vegetable and as a fruit.

Nopal-salad
A salad with black beans and nopalitos. Rancho Gordo.

The paddles are the vegetables. You want them when they are young and still flexible. You see them pre-cut in plastic bags in the cold section of many Mexican markets and you'll find them in jars with vinegar as well. These are fair products but the real fun is preparing the paddles yourself. I'd suggest wearing gloves at first. With a sharp knife, cut along the outside rim of the paddle. Next, holding the fat base with a towel, gentley remove all the little glochids (spines) off. Don't worry about removing the skin. It's fine to eat. You can rinse as you go along and you can change direction to get every last little irritant. At this point the paddle is good for grilling, perhaps with a quick bath in olive oil. You can also cut the paddle in to squares (now making them nopalitos) and then simmer in water for about 15 minutes. Add a few onion slices for flavor and some tomatillo husks (or corn husks) in the water to absorb the okra-like mucilage that can be a little off-putting for some. When they're cooked, drain them in a colander and pick out the husks, if you used them. Now you can add them to scrambled eggs and salsa, to some cotija cheese and hot sauce for a taco filling or simply as an ingredient in a tossed salad. The flavor is somewhere between asparagus and a green bean and yet totally unique.

At the end of the summer, something magical happens. The bumps that had been growing on the paddles turn color, often red, and they start to look swollen and sore. You can test one with a pair of tongs; if they come off easily, it's time to eat! The prickly pears, or tunas (pronounced two-nahs) have invisible little glochids, just to make nature's little joke is complete, so you'll have to take extra care when collecting the fruit. I've found the best way to remove the spines is to hold the tuna with tongs and then run them through a flame. A gas burner on your stove works but a dedicated torch is even better if you're like me and love your culinary toys. Once safe, you can cut the prickly pear in half and scoop out the glorious flesh. It tastes distinctly tropical and yet this is a decidedly desert plant. You can spit the hard stones out but real tunas lovers eat them. Once you've had your fill, you can use them in agua frescas, sherbets or simply pour a little Sambuca Romana over some sliced, peeled tunas, which ends up being my favorite dessert.

Nopales2
This huge plant started from four paddles! Rancho Gordo.

A lot of people are interested in sustainable, organic, local food and yet they wouldn't even dream of trying cactus. This is a shame! Citizens of the Americas have been enjoying this plant long before Columbus landed and the clever ones continue the tradition. This is a key part of our collective culinary heritage and yet it remains more exotic than arugula. I'm not qualified to expand on the health benefits (of which there are many, especially for diabetics) and I don't want to lecture on water consumption, labor practices or land use in order to get you to try nopales. I maintain that you should be eating them for the flavor. All the other benefits are just icing on the cake.


Nopal Tacos

1 cup of fresh tomato salsa
1/2 cup cooked cactus paddles (nopalitos)
1/4 cup crumbled cotija cheese
key limes, quartered.
corn tortillas


Gently toss the the first three ingredients in a bowl. Heat the tortillas on a hot, dry skillet. Add a small portion of the filling to each tortilla and fold in half. Top off with a squeeze of lime.



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