Prickly desert cactus sounds like the last thing you’d want to eat. But — surprise! — once the spines are off, cactus is juicy and tender, great in salads and soups, main courses and even desserts.
The variety we’re talking about is Mexico’s nopal cactus — prickly pear. You might have seen it growing wild in warm climates or in someone’s back yard, a sprawling plant composed of oval ‘‘paddles.’’
They’re best when young, about the size of a hand or a little larger. Cut into strips and cooked, they look a bit like green beans. The flavor is delicate, not what you’d expect from a cantankerous-looking desert dweller.
For centuries, Mexicans have eaten ‘‘nopales’’ in stews, salads and omelets. So embedded is the nopal cactus in Mexican culture that it appears on the flag and on coins. A cactus plant supporting an eagle holding a snake was, according to legend, the sign that led the Aztecs to found their capital, Tenochtitlan, on the site of what is now Mexico City.
Mexican cooks love to get creative with nopales. On a recent visit to the little town of Santa Rosa near Guanajuato, I came across a nopal liqueur, made by a women’s co-op that has a shop on the main street. The women also make a sweet, firm paste, called ‘‘ate,’’ from cactus. It’s cut into chunks, to eat like candy. In a health food store I spotted nopal cookies, and in Mexican pharmacies I’ve seen nopal shampoo.
But that’s not all this plant can do. Beside the paddle, the nopal cactus produces a fruit that is small and seedy, but sweet and delicious. In Spanish it’s known as ‘‘tuna,’’ which naturally causes endless confusion among non-Spanishspeakers accustomed to tuna casseroles and tuna sandwiches. Imagine their shock at finding an ‘‘agua fresca’’ (a sweet drink) or a ‘‘paleta’’ (a Popsicle) — made with ‘‘tuna.’’
When shopping, look for nopales that are small, tender and bright green. Avoid any that are flabby and soft.
Removing the spines is not difficult — it just takes a sharp knife. Hold the paddle on a slant and slice downward, starting from the base, not the rounded top. Trim off the edge of each paddle, and discard the thick base. You can also try a sharp vegetable peeler, but you might have to go back with a paring knife to cut out some stubborn spines. As you work, grip the cactus with a potholder, dishcloth or thick glove.
Once you’ve mastered this procedure, you’re ready to experiment, or copy the way local Mexican restaurants treat nopales. Cooked nopales remain slightly firm and resilient, unlike vegetables that soften when boiled too long. They keep well if cooked in advance, which is handy if you want to scramble eggs with nopales for breakfast.
The most popular cactus dish, found in markets all over Mexico, is cactus salad. A simple chopped mixture of nopales, tomato, onion and chile, it’s tossed sometimes with crumbled Mexican cheese and flavored with cilantro or oregano. The most interesting cactus dish at Senor Fred is chile verde, a pork stew with nopales. Chef Juan Carlos Leon simmers the nopales in water before combining them with the other stew ingredients.
Leon insists on fresh cactus. ‘‘The flavor (of the canned) would ruin the flavor of my food,’’ he says.
When fresh ones are so easy to find, why use anything but? And don’t let the spines scare you. Remember, you’re the one with the knife.