When a friend offered to let me harvest some cactus pads to make nopales, I couldn't resist the temptation. I've always noticed the trimmed pads in the Latino markets in San Francisco, but never took the leap of faith to try to make them at home. But presented with the opportunity to harvest my own, I figured, why not?
I'll tell you why not: Though removing the spines is not especially difficult, they tend to get everywhere, and they hurt like a sonofagun. Should you be as much a masochist as I, though, here are a few tips: Select pads that are flat, not too thick (they get too fibrous) and no more than about 12" in diameter. When trimming them, wear thick, impermeable gloves. Use a knife to trim all around the edges, then lay the knife flat on the surface of the pad, shaving away the follicle-like growths of the needles. Do your best to gather them all up and dispose of them well. Despite my best efforts, I still found the occasional spine jammed into crevices of my hands for days.
Nopales are a mainstay in Mexican food, but if you don't live in the American Southwest or California, they may be unfamiliar to you. You are, however, probably familiar with another part of the same cactus, the prickly pear. At best, perhaps you've had the canned variety, and if so, you may be loath to try these at home. The flesh of the nopal is mucilaginous, and if not handled correctly, they can turn into a slimy, gooey mess. In this preparation, salting leeches out some of the moisture of the pads, firming the flesh and abating the slimy texture. Pickling also helps with texture, as well as flavor.
Nopales are often enjoyed with eggs, but they really shine as a taco filling, either alongside strips of meat or as a vegetarian filling on their own. The firm bite of these nopales gives them a meaty texture and satisfying chew.
This recipe can be scaled.
- 12 oz. cactus pad
- 4 oz. onion (12 oz/4 oz)
- 1 jalapeño
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 teaspoon peppercorn
- 1 teaspoon coriander seed
- Trim away any tough edges of the cactus pad. Cut the pad into planks as wide as the height of the fill line on your jar (e.g., for most half-pint jars that's about 4 1/2"). Cut the planks into 1/2" wide strips. Place in a large nonreactive bowl and toss with a liberal amount of kosher or sea salt. Let stand at least an hour. Rinse thoroughly with water and pat dry. Repeat if desired.
- Prepare your water bath canner, and wash 4 half-pint jars and lids with warm, soapy water.
- Trim the top and root end of the onion, halve, and cut pole-to-pole into 1/4 strips.
- Trim the stem end off the jalapeño, halve, and cut into thin strips. Remove the seeds and membranes to reduce the heat if desired.
- In a nonreactive pot, combine the vinegar, salt, peppercorn and coriander seed. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Pack the cactus strips, onion and jalapeño into clean jars. Pour the vinegar brine into the jars, leaving 1/2" headspace. Apply lids and rings, and process in the water bath canner for 10 minutes.