I love nopalitos—the tangy green vegetable is not only full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but it’s also fun to harvest. Ubiquitous in neighborhoods and in the wild, harvesting a few pads does not harm the plant or jeopardize the supply for other animals that also love them. A mature nopal, planted in a garden or an earthen basin, serves as a low-maintenance perennial food crop, a living fence, habitat for birds and beneficial insects, a remedy for burns and swelling like aloe vera—and it’s simply beautiful.
Some species of nopal make better fruit, called tunas, and some make better nopalitos, but eat whatever you have. In the wild each spring, many species grow edible pads, which are covered with stout spines as well as many tiny spines called glochids. Mexican cultivars produce nearly spineless young pads from spring until fall with minimal irrigation or summer rains, but are frost sensitive. Nopalitos most often appear in my Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA, share in May and June, due in part to the gap between winter and summer produce.
They are also available in jars and fresh at Mexican groceries. A man used to glean nopalitos from his Tucson neighborhood, then clean and sell them in front of his apartment complex during Lent—much to the dismay of my neighbor who was waiting for his living fence to grow.
Harvest young pads, smaller and brighter in color with tiny, fleshy cones (leaves) growing near the spines and glochids at raised places called areoles. As the pads mature, the color dulls and the leaves fall off. Larger pads have woody fibers in the center, but harvested too small, they are more work for less food.
Hold the pad with tongs and cut from the plant with a knife at the base of the pad. I hate ruining gloves, so I don’t use them, but I’m careful and I don’t mind removing a few glochids from my fingers with flat-tipped tweezers. If large spines are present, singe them over an open flame, like a gas stove or campfire. They burn as quickly as paper. This step is not necessary for many species.
Place the pad flat on a table, put the knife flat against the pad, and cut off each areole. Do not remove the skin from the entire pad. Trim the top edge of the pad, where there are many areoles. Trim the base of the pad, which can be fibrous. Rinse off glochids.
Cut in pieces or cook whole in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Drain, rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Alternatively, grill or sauté. Some people are repulsed by the texture of soluble fiber in okra and nopalitos, and some of us love it. Rinsing and drying does help. Serve cooked nopalitos in a quesadilla or a cold salad with onion, tomato ,and cilantro, or pickle nopalitos in vinegar with onion and jalapeño. To win over slime-phobic eaters, scramble with eggs or put in red chile sauce or pipián rojo.
Amy Valdés Schwemm sells mole powders at ManoYMetate.com.