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Handle the cactus with care, but relish the flavor

Cactus seems like the kind of food one discovers under duress. Modern-day ranchers use “pear burners,” a sort of blowtorch on steroids, to scorch the spines off prickly pear cacti so the cattle can munch without multiple piercings. But if you have to approach the task with bare hands, even the less spiny nopal verde, which produces the edible green cactus paddles, are treacherous.

The hard way or the easy way: Fresh nopal paddles are available at local grocery stores and markets, but if you want to skip the spines, you can also buy them preserved or prepped. (Photo by Elaine Wolff)

So it’s appropriate that the recipe for Sopa de Nopales in Nancy Zaslavsky’s A Cook’s Tour of Mexico, reads like stone soup: three tomatoes, four garlic cloves, two canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, six cups chicken stock, and diced cactus paddles, sans spurs. The final product is thin — a smoky, hot, orange-red broth dotted with floating nopalitos, as the prepped cactus is called — but deeply satisfying when sprinkled with queso fresco and served with thick corn chips. The secret, as with many authentic Mexican foods, is in roasting the tomatoes and garlic on a comal (a griddle, but a cast-iron skillet is a fine substitute) before blending them with the chipotle peppers.

It’s also a snap to prepare — well under 30 minutes — if you use prepped fresh nopalitos, available in most H-E-B produce sections. But fresh nopal, a traditional Mexican food that has been consumed at least since the Aztecs ruled, is fairly rich in Vitamin C (1 cup contains 15 percent of the RDA) and insoluble fiber (aka roughage), and the Puritan in me likes to work for those benefits. I found fleshy, firm, deep green paddles at La Michoacana Meat Market and Taqueria on Pleasanton just south of Military Drive (the H-E-B on Olmos also carries them), and spent an unpleasant 40 minutes alternating between a knife for removing spine nodes and a tweezer for removing spines from my hands (some cooks recommend gloves, but if you have small hands, too, you might find working this way resembles a Barnum & Bailey sideshow). Whether you buy them bagged or prep your own, the finished nopalitos should be parboiled and rinsed to remove the okra-like mucus that fresh nopal exudes.

Like okra, cooked nopal is not for everyone — the texture is crisp on the outside, borderline slimy on the inside. The flavor is slightly tangy and green, not unlike green beans — which are often suggested as a substitute for or an addition to the nopalitos recipe most San Antonians are familiar with: Nopalito Salad, made with pickled nopalitos, several brands of which can be found at local grocery stores. La Fonda on Main serves a respectable version garnished with crumbled queso fresco, but an even tastier quick treat are bite-size tacos, made with 4-inch corn tortillas. Heat them on the griddle, melt a slice of queso fresco in the middle topped with pickled nopalitos and a bright citrus-guajillo salsa, and add diced avocado and cilantro. “Delicious!” declared Dining Companion, who had kept his distance during the de-spining operation. “Can we buy the bagged ones next time?”

By Elaine Wolff

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