Saturday, October 2, 2010

Nopales





I almost hate to post on top of Gayle's wonderful entry on the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show, which is happening in the very city of my birth, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Be sure and read all about it in yesterday's entry, and go see the show if you're anywhere near.

Talk about a change of pace! Today I'm writing about nopales. Or maybe a meal of nopales followed by a piece of cake would be nice.

Nopales, for the uninitiated, are the pads of the prickly pear cactus. Nopales are widely consumed in the American desert Southwest and Mexico, but it is nothing that I ever came across during my Oklahoma childhood. This is why I'm currently engaged in nopales research. My Alafair Tucker mystery series is set in Oklahoma in the 1910s, and my protagonist, Alafair, is a prodigious cook. What she cooks, of course, is food indigenous to her region. But in the book I'm working on now, Alafair travels out here to Arizona, and is introduced to an entirely new cuisine.

Which of course includes nopales. Nopales can be used in salads, casseroles, soups, grilled and prepared in a variety of other ways. Nopales are somewhat tart and taste rather like green beans, or a little like asparagus. Nopales are often compared to okra, because of the sticky substance they release when cooked. This is usually rinsed off before serving.

Cactus pads are widely available in markets out here in Arizona, or even harvested right in your own back yard. They have to be handled carefully, as you might guess, but it's really not that hard to prepare them. Just wear some heavy gloves and peel them -- or I've seen cooks scrub the needles off with a pot scrubber! then the thick edges are trimmed off. You can cut them into thin strips or chop them. Place them in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Rinse off the sticky stuff (or put in a pinch of baking soda at the end of the cooking time, which will absorb a lot of the stuff). Use cooked nopales in soups, stews and salads. They can be scrambled with eggs - a favorite Mexican Lenten dish - or used as a taco filling.

A really delicious way to use nopales is to grill them. Peel and trim the pads, then brush them with olive oil and grill until they're soft and slightly charred. Grilled nopales are especially delicious with grilled meat. Nopales can also be cut into strips, batter-dipped and rolled in breadcrumbs, cornmeal or flour, and fried like french fries.

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