A delicious addition to many a dish, especially something along the lines of Tex-Mex, at first, cactus may seem a daunting proposition for tonight’s dinner. But the short and crunchy of it is that it has long been a favorite in the deserts of Mexico and southwestern U.S. for years. For the rest of us, we have to delve into the quiet corners of specialty markets, eyes darting around for the cactus bin and the promise of wonderfully unique tacos.

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Both the fruit, the prickly pear, and paddles of the nopal cactus are not just edible but notably tasty. The pears, little orangey red or purple bulbs sprouting from the tops of the paddles, are beloved for their sweetness and vibrantly colored centers. On the other hand, the paddles are likened to bell peppers, only with the added feature of having a sliminess similar to okra, which makes them ideal for thickening up sauces and soups.

How to Handle Them Pears

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No surprise that the fruit of a cactus doesn’t come without its challenges. The prickly pear is covered in tiny spines called glochids that can — and will — wreak havoc on human hands, so it’s important when foraging or handling pears to use some sort of protection, a plastic glove, or tongs. Put the pears in cold water and swish them around gently for a few minutes to remove the spines.  After this, you can handle the fruit without worry.

Now, to get to the eating part of this process, slice the ends off of a spineless pear so that it can be stood vertically. When doing this, try not to cut too much off as it will waste the fruit and ruin the integrity of the soft middle. Once the pear can stand on end, trim the skin off of the rest of the pear. It works well when cut into wedges. And, a last note, the seeds are edible but very hard, so be careful not to bite them.

Prickly pears can be used to make jam, sorbet, smoothie, candy and wine. They work well in sauces, such as with this Pistachio Crusted Tofu. And, if you don’t happen to live near the Arizona desert, fret not as it is possible to find the fruit in markets, usually already spine-free and finger friendly.

How to Work with a Paddle

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We could go for a few one-liners here, fun stuff about paddling, but we will rise above that and get down to serious business. Nopal paddles are worth the effort, but they do have the typical desert plant-life defenses to thwart. The big spikes are apparent enough and make it imperative to wear some pretty heavy-duty gloves; however, a second line of defense — more glochids — is less apparent but every bit as potent. Stay gloved until the proper processes have cleared the way.

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Vegetable peelers are magic instruments for removing the spines from a nopal paddle, however, remember that the smaller spikes are still there. They can be removed with a bit of fire, either via torch or a gas burner. After that, rinse the paddle to make sure all the nastiness is gone. Now, the gloves can go, and the nopal can be trimmed of any bruised spots and sliced into strips called nopalitos.

Nopal can be grilled or boiled. They are perfect for tacos, work nicely in sauces and salsas, and for thickening up soups.

How to Grow Your Own Cactus

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Though a wild plant, nopales can be cultivated easily by planting the pads. Simply bury the pad half in soil. Assuming we aren’t in the desert, this will likely need to happen in a container, inside, where the climate and moisture can be controlled. The cactus can get quite large, over six feet high and just as wide, but one needs only to prune and eat the paddles (the younger, thinner pieces are thought to be the tastiest) to keep the size appropriate to its location.

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Obviously, the plants require a lot of sun and only a little water, so it’s best to put them in a south-facing window and water them sparingly, every two or three weeks. Some growing tips include watering with lukewarm water (nothing cold!), never letting the cactus sit in soggy soil, and providing the plants with a bit of fertilizer/food in the spring and summer. Once a nopal is growing successfully, more can be started by cutting off one the paddles and planting it.

And, that’s how you sustainably eat cactus in San Francisco, New York or Mexico.

Lead Image Source: Flickr