When we picked up our nopales (cactus pads) from the CSA we were surprised that they hadn’t been cleaned. This is the first time that’s been the case, and it seemed as though it scared people enough that the trading baskets were pretty much full of cactus paddles. Probably partly because nopales are a bit different, and, perhaps, because cleaning them seems daunting. Well, fear not, fellow scratcher, because we’re going to show you how easy it really is.
Before we do, there are a few things you should know. First, if you harvest your own pads, choose thin, flat, new growth pads. They’ll be more tender and easier to deal with. Second, look at all those places where the spines come out (technically tubercles); they also have fine, hairlike, nearly invisible spines, called glochids, that will embed themselves in anything. So, don’t touch those.
With that in mind, let’s start cleaning.
Make a handle. How you handle those pieces of cactus without getting stuck? Easy: make a handle of some sort. You can use tongs, or, if you don’t have tongs, simply take a piece of parchment and fold that between your fingers and the pad to prevent being skewered. You could also use a couple of pieces of newsprint, we’re sure. Regardless of what you use, you’ll need something to pick up a paddle.
Slice off tubercles on one side. Place the paddle on a cutting board and press it flat. Use a sharp chef’s knife like a razor, and press the blade flat against the paddle to hold it down while you slice off the tubercles. Why not use a vegetable peeler? Well, we tried that and it kept getting clogged with bits of tubercles; a chef’s knife doesn’t clog. If needed, while you work, rinse the knife to keep it clean.
Trim edges. One side clean? Great, now let’s trim the edges. Simply take your chef’s knife and run it around the circumference of the paddle, slicing off about 1/8 of an inch. This will remove all the spines from around the edge.
Slice off tubercles from the other side. Now, simply flip the paddle over, and slice off the tubercles on that side. There, nearly done.
Rinse. You’ll notice that some of the tubercles have stuck to the pad, so pick up your pad and rinse it under cold running water. Most of the stuck-on tubercles should pop right off. You might have to encourage a few with your chef’s knife.
Double check. Finally, double check all around to see if you missed a few tubercles. It’s easy to do. If so, simply trim or slice those off and set your clean, ready-to-go pad off to the side, and work on the next.
Prepare. We made a Spanish style rice with our pads, along with some roasted green chilies and tomato sauce. Regardless of what you’ll be making, the first step for cooking nopales is to boil and rinse. Cut your cactus paddles into strips, cut those strips into inch-long pieces, and place in a small saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, let simmer a minute or two, then drain and rinse. Rinse several times to get rid of the mucilage (that’s the sliminess that many people don’t like). Your nopales are ready to be used. We use them pretty much as we’d use green bell pepper, which is sort of what they taste like.
See, we told you it wasn’t hard. Now, it’s not that we’d want to clean hundreds of pads at one sitting, but a handful? No problem. And, now, armed with our instructions, no problem for you, either.