Popular in Mexico, these fleshy oval leaves of the nopal (prickly pear) cactus are gaining popularity in the United States. Nopales are also called cactus paddles or pads. Nopales range in color from pale to dark green and have a delicate, slightly tart green-bean flavor. Fresh cactus pads are available year-round in Mexican markets and some grocery stores. However, they are at their most tender and juicy in the spring. The flesh is generally cut into small pieces or strips, simmered in water until tender and used in a variety of dishes from scrambled eggs to salads. Nopalitos (nopales that are diced or cut into strips) are available canned (pickled or packed in water). Acitrones are candied nopales, packed in sugar syrup.
Choose small to medium-size firm pads. The pads should not be wrinkled, soggy or too soft. If you are growing prickly pear cactuses in your garden, the pads are at their best in the spring. Harvest when the individual leaf is young and fresh. The leaves will generally be hand-size and have a glossy green sheen and be of minimum thickness, about 3/8" thick. When the leaf has grown too thick and has lost its sheen, it will be pithy inside. The leaves are best separated from the main plant with a knife by slicing through the leaf approximately 1 inch above the junction point from which it grows from the leaf below. The stub left on the older mature leaf below will grow a new leaf from its surface, generally the next year.
Refrigerate tightly wrapped for up to a week.
The harvested leaf must be rid of spines if any, glochids if any (the hair-like tiny spines that get in the skin), or the green nubs that grow on the areoles of the spineless varieties. The green nubs are easily removed with a green scrubbing pad or cloth. The spines and glochids must be cut off with a knife by slicing through the skin under the areole from which the spines and glochids grow. This process is known as "skinning." Tweezers can also be used to remove the spines. Use a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler to remove the bases. Cut into pieces about 1/4" wide by 2" long. Boil in salted water for about 15 minutes. To eliminate the "baba" (Spanish term for the slimy fluid), boil with a raw onion or two cloves garlic, which absorb the baba. Cool. They are now ready to use.