The rains have brought us nopales! Here’s what to do with them
I hope you all have been enjoying the monsoon rains! I certainly have loved being lulled to sleep with the sound of the desert being refreshed by Mother Nature.
If you haven’t already noticed, look around you. You’ll see a miracle that defies the perception that our desert is devoid of greenery and growth. A lot of things are sprouting and growing in our Sonoran Desert right now! Unlike more temperate climates, where there is one growing season and it’s dependent on temperature, we have TWO!
Our growing seasons are linked to the rain…and since we have one rainy season through the winter and another with the monsoons, we see spring-like behavior in many plants in late summer as water arrives and temperatures begin to cool. (Well, kind of on the temperature part…ha!)
For those of you with a Crooked Sky Farms CSA, we’re getting a uniquely Borderlands item this week that is a prime example of the good fortune we have to live in a “two season” climate. We’re getting nopales!
Farmer Frank called yesterday and asked if I might share some ideas for all of you to consider trying with the nopales that will be in our shares as well as at the markets this weekend. We have both observed that even in the last 2-3 years prickly pear pads, as they are also called, have gained in popularity and are showing up in more restaurants as well as kitchens of people just like you.
This post is designed to give you some of the nuts and bolts of preparing and cooking with nopales so that you can enjoy this wonderful monsoon treat.
I’m focusing in this piece on cactus pads purchased from farms. They tend to be from varieties with fewer thorns and easier to prepare.
Even though commercially sold nopales have FEWER thorns, they still have thorns! I would strongly recommend wearing gloves while working with them. Every chef has his or her own technique; here are two of my favorites from local chefs.
Liam Murtagh from The Coronado uses a potato peeler! Here is a video we made a few years ago about how to dethorn and cook nopales.
I recently spent time with local Olympic taekwondo contender Jenny Quezada and her mom. They showed me how they prepare the nopales they harvest in their yard. Jenny’s mother Blanca uses the back of a spoon. I couldn’t believe it could be that easy, so I went home and tried it myself.
It’s much, much quicker, and safer, than slicing out individual thorns with a knife. Farmer Frank tried this method himself and gave it a thumbs up.
So there you have it! Dethorned nopales….now what to do with them?
Nopales can be eaten raw, boiled, grilled, pickled…they’re quite versatile. They have a flavor reminiscent of lemony green beans.
Raw, they are popular in salsa. This mango/avocado/nopales salsa is not my recipe, but I saved it because it’s one I definitely want to try. If you made any salsa verde with our recent run of tomatillos, try adding some chopped nopales into a bit. That’s a popular combination.
If you have a powerful juicer and you’re careful, nopales can be juiced! I enjoy the nopales/green apple/pineapple juice at the Ranch Market juice bar. Because the mucilage in the cactus can easily gum up your juicer blades, I recommend juicing a small bit of cactus, alternating with the fruit, so that the acid in the fruit can keep the blades clean through the process. I would start with a small bit of cactus first in this venture, because cactus juice is heavier than fruit juice and tends to sink to the bottom of the glass.
I experimented with adding vanilla protein powder to this and turning it into a recovery shake. Not only was it delicious, the athletes I made this for enjoyed the mental boost of becoming “cactus eaters”.
Cooking nopales can be somewhat challenging, as the mucilage is plentiful and it can detract from palatibility. I have discovered that blanching them turns them a pretty green while keeping the protective outer coat intact. For dishes like this shrimp and grits, it works very well.
Mexican chefs have known for centuries, thanks to their acid, cooking nopales with tomatos helps to cut the “goo”. It’s a pretty traditional combination. For a modern twist, here’s a recipe for nopales and tofu in chipotle sauce. You could easily substitute other vegan proteins or meat if that is your preference.
Blanca’s technique was to cook the nopales on medium heat, long enough to simply cook out the mucilage and leave the rest of the vegetable. It will take some time, but if you’re up for cooking beans, rice, and calabacitas, like you see here, the nopales should be ready just in time. Simply remove them from the skillet and rinse thoroughly before serving.
Pickled nopales are really nice for salads. If you see nopales in a jar in the grocer, this is what’s inside. Here are the directions for pickling your own, from Rebooted Mom.
I have a whole Pinterest board with ideas I hope you visit. It’s exciting to see this native veggie gain in popularity. It’s something we can call distinctively Arizona, a fun culinary offering that may even be growing in your own yard.