Mexican markets present customers with an incredible variety of fresh produce and prepared food, both in permanent stands inside the market building, and also outside, where some vendors offer their harvest of the day. They would often arrange a display on a tablecloth set on the ground, or sometimes sell right out of their carrying baskets. Paddle cactus (Nopales) is one of the most common produce offered this way; piles of prickly paddles, like the ones photographed above, fill baskets in a slightly intimidating way. But there is no need to fear, because the skillful vendors, knife in hand, take them out one by one, remove all the spines, and form smaller piles of five or six paddles on their tablecloths, while casually announcing the price per pile, and selling them to people passing by. I realized how spoiled I had been, when my mirth from seeing fresh nopales at one international market in my area was quickly replaced by doubt, after I saw that the whole paddles, neatly packed in a tray and covered with plastic wrap, had their spines still intact. Ugh!
I grabbed a tray, then put it back, and headed to the canned goods isle. I found cans of “pickled tender cactus”, cut into strips. With one can in my cart, I was going towards the cashier when I decided last minute to also purchase a tray of fresh paddles, after all. I would cook both products and compare, to see if the resulting dish from the fresh nopales justified the extra work in the kitchen.
Needless to say, I had never cleaned spiny cacti of any kind before, but kind of remembered how those vendors did it (and also checked Youtube). I used a paring knife and proceeded to trim the edge of each paddle, to remove the pointy clumps of fine bristles all around; placing a bag on my working area made cleaning up easy (golden rule for future reference: wear gloves). Then, I slashed the spines on both sides of each paddle, while placing the knife at a very small angle:
Just as I was starting to enjoy my new cactus-slayer skills, I finished the last paddle. My progress may be appreciated by looking at all the cleaned paddles, in order from left to right, and the last in front:
UPDATE, March 2020: I am now much more comfortable cleaning and slicing cactus paddles. (Click here for printable instructions.)
I sliced three paddles into strips, and cooked them for about ten minutes in boiling water. After draining and rinsing under running water, I was ready to cook them (right) along with a batch of drained and rinsed strips from the can (left):
Sautéed Paddle Cactus – Nopalitos
2 cups cooked paddle cactus strips
½ cup chopped onions
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp dried oregano, or to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
I sautéed the chopped onions in the oil over medium heat until translucent, then added the paddles, being careful not to mix the two batches. After about five minutes, a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and crushed dried oregano finished the preparations. I served the two batches, side by side with slices of tomato, and onion as a garnish.
A blind test with an unbiased group of one individual (my husband) resulted in a clear winner: canned strips!!! Oh well, así es la vida (such is life), I guess (sniff) … I would have remained in that state of melancholy, if I had not remembered that I still had the best two whole fresh paddles. Aha, a chance for redemption!
Grilled Cactus Paddles with Melted Cheese –
Nopales asados con queso fundido
Fresh cactus paddles (nopales), de-spined, rinsed and patted dry
Sliced fresh cheese (Mexican panela, Middle East unripened, or Cypriot halumi)
Salt and pepper
Grill whole paddles on a slightly greased iron skillet over medium-high heat, flipping once or twice. Add slices of cheese next to the paddles, and continue cooking, while browning cheese on both sides:
When cheese starts to melt, season paddles with salt and pepper to taste, place cheese on top and serve immediately:
In conclusion, when fresh paddles are available, the best way to feature them is whole, as the second recipe. For other uses, I will be practical (euphemism for lazy) and get the canned strips.
Opuntia is the genus of the Cactaceae family that includes numerous species of paddle cacti.
The most cultivated species for human consumption is O. ficus-indica, commonly known as nopal, paddle cactus or prickly pear, for its characteristic edible oval fruit. Raw paddles are made into smoothies to treat diabetes.
Cacti are native to the American continent, and resilient to extreme temperatures; they can be found in the wild from Canada (Eastern prickly pear) all the way to Argentina. The exception is Rhipsalis baccifera, the only known true cactus with a native range both within and outside the American continent; it grows wild in Florida, also from Mexico to Argentina, and the Caribbean, as well as from Sierra Leone to Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka. The fruit is edible, gathered from the wild for local consumption, and also often grown as an ornamental.