Cleaning and cooking nopales can seem challenging if you are not familiar with the ingredient. Truth is, cleaning them, can be a bit daunting at first. That’s why I CANNOT wait for cleaned and diced fresh nopales to be readily available in grocery stores here in the US, just like they are in Mexico. But while that happens, let me give you some tricks.
First, to choose them, you want paddles that are bright green and although soft, not limp. The smaller the paddle the more tender it will be, but large ones are delicious too.
To clean them, if it’s your first time, you may want to use plastic gloves. Rinse under cold water being careful with the thorns. Nopales are persnickety, their thorns are almost invisible, but a good clue is that wherever there is a bump there may be a thorn. Then, using a vegetable peeler or small sharp knife, pretty much as if they were asparagus, peel away the bumps and thorns, you may want to lean the nopales against a chopping board, and then rinse again. No need to peel off all of the outer dark green skin, in fact, try to keep as much as you can.
Lay the paddle flat on a chopping board and trim about ¼ inch off the edges and about ½ inch of the thick base. Then slice in any shape or size, or keep it whole if it will be grilled or asada or used as a mounting base. I usually cut them into little squares and rectangles as I mostly use them for salads and soups.
As for how to cook them, there are many ways. A main concern for newcomers is how to get rid of that gelatinous liquid they exude as they cook. Variations go from cooking them in salted water to adding elements that supposedly help, like tomatillo husks, scallion tops, baking soda and even a copper coin. Whichever way you boil them, once cooked you have to drain and rinse them many times.
My favorite way to cook them, aside from grilling them, is to sear them in a skillet with a bit of oil for a few minutes and then let them cook covered until all of that liquid comes out, then uncover until all that liquid cooks off. Pretty much like cooking mushrooms. Not only does it work, but it also adds a nice seared flavor with merely any oil and you don’t have to drain and rinse many times. See below for precise directions, and give it a go!
Basic Cooking for Cactus Paddles
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- 2 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
- 3 pounds nopales rinsed, cleaned and diced
- Kosher or sea salt to taste
- Rinse the fresh cactus paddles under cold water, being careful not to prick your fingers with the small thorns on its surface. Using a vegetable peeler or small sharp knife, peel away the darker bumps where thorns grow, as well as the thorns, trying not to peel off all the outer dark green skin.
- Lay the paddles flat on a chopping board, then trim around approximately 1/4 inch of the edges and 1/2 inch of the thick base. Once cleaned, rinse and dice into 1/2 to 1 inch-sized squares, to your liking.
- Heat the oil in a thick, large-sized skillet (one that has a lid, since we will need it later on) over medium-high heat. Add the diced cactus, stir in the salt and stir for a minute or two. Place the lid on the skillet.
- Reduce the heat to medium and let the cactus cook and sweat for about 20 minutes, until it has exuded a gelatinous liquid that will begin to dry out. Take the lid off the skillet, stir and make sure most of that gelatinous substance has dried up. If it hasn’t, let the cactus cook for a few more minutes until it does. Let the cactus cool and they are ready to go in a thousand directions including inside of a tortilla.