Harvesting, preparing and cooking nopales

A feral nopal cactus growing in the arboretum at PlattekloofA feral nopal cactus growing near us in the northern suburbs

Nopales or prickly pear are a lovely perennial food plant from Meso America which are naturalized and even invasive in South Africa. We eat the fruit here, but do not know for the most part, that the pads are also delicious. Eating them may be a way of reducing the invasion by the plant.

I discovered that you can eat cactus pads as a vegetable from my sister who lives in California. She lives close to the Mexican border and has become a lover of real Mexican food, which is fine cuisine, using exquisite taste combinations and not at all like the greasy, chili and cheese doused Texmex version we have in fast food chains in South Africa.

The older leaves look like this once the thorns are cleaned offThe older pads look like this once the thorns are cleaned off

Nopales are one of my sister's favorite vegetables and she has them most often in scrambled eggs and I've also become a fan. She describes them as having a flavor like green beans. Indeed they are green and fresh tasting, almost grassy, like fresh young beans. They also have a wonderful lemony flavor, and a slippery texture rather like okra. If you've ever had very fresh green young okra with lemon juice, the flavor is similar.

There is a big prickly pear cactus in our area growing wild in a green zone, so I harvested some pads. There are many varieties of prickly pear, even here in the city of Cape Town. After a lot of research online for the right kind of cactus to eat I found someone who claimed the variety with pointy pads like the one I harvested is not so good. Nonetheless I prepared them to eat.

This cactus has round ended pads at a better stage for harvestingRounder pads, young, dark green and pimply are better for harvesting

The type may be important but it seems that the tenderness of the pads is even more important. Chefs make it clear that you should harvest them young while their thorns still are prominent. Once they are smooth they have a network of tough fibers on the inside, like those in the photograph.

The beautiful honeycomb of tough fibers beneath the skin in old padsThe beautiful honeycomb of tough fibers beneath the skin in old pads

The nopales with these fibers were still delicious, but the fibers remain like a cud of sisal twine in the mouth and stick in the teeth. These fibers fortify the cactus and help it carry the weight of the heavy pads. After all, the pads are strickly speaking stems, whose purpose in most plants is to bear the weight of the plant and it could be expected that they are pretty woody when mature. So all in all, harvest your pads young, bright green and 'pimply' looking, as seen in the picture of a young cactus pad.

Cuttings in the nursery with pads of different ages, from scarred old, to smooth gray, all the way to dark green pimply young pads.Cuttings in the nursery with pads of different ages, from scarred old, to smooth gray, all the way to bright green pimply young pads.

As you can see in my article on how to grow your own nopales, I eventually chose a variety with round ended pads and very few thorns. When you harvest your pads, work with gloves, tongs or a plastic bag, taking care not to get the thorns in your clothes. Similarly when you work with it in the kitchen, take care not to get the thorns in the food, or left on food preparation areas. Work with gloves or a plastic bag as protection.

Work with tongs and a strong knife. Plastic bags to catch the scrapings would have been better than cloth.Work with tongs and a strong knife. Plastic bags to catch the scrapings would have been better than cloth. These pads are really too old.

You notice mention of a potato peeler in some videos online about preparing nopales. The tough old pads broke the potato peeler within minutes. A big solid kitchen knife is better.

Scrape the thorns off with a sharp flat knife, then trim around the edge of the pad and cut off the thick fibrous stem part. Rinse the pad and grill it whole on the fire, or in a pan, or chop it into slices, and fry or boil. To find out what foods blend nicely with nopales, which is nearly anything, you can google online for Mexican recipes. The Maya people have been using nopales for thousands of years and they do know best.

Fried nopales. The fibers can be seen easily. Young pads are more tender.Fried nopales. The fibers can be seen. Young pads are more tender.

I googled the Mexican name Nopales and found out how to prepare them from a video by home chef Eloise Lozano.

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