How to Prep and Cook a Prickly Pear Cactus

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I spent the weekend down in south Texas hunting free-range axis deer and hogs, where my guide Rudy Reyes and I spent much of our time together talking authentic Mexican food. While cleaning a hog that will end up in Rudy's freezer, I remarked about the amount of cactus that particular pig had been eating, leading to a discussion about nopales, or prickly pear cactus.

The big green paddles had shown up in my grocery store lately, and I'd been dying to try them. Turns out, Rudy loves nopalitos, as he called them, and gave me a few tips on prepping them for the table.

Removing the spines or palitos (little sticks): If you buy your cactus paddles at the store or farmer's market, the spines may have already been removed. If not--or if you gathered them yourself--you'll need a good set of tongs or leather gloves and a sharp knife or vegetable peeler to shave off the spines. Try to leave as much of the skin on as possible, but take the time to cut in each direction around the dark, spine-covered spots that dot both sides of the paddles to ensure the cactus is completely cleaned.

De-sliming the paddles: Like okra, nopales exude a slimy liquid when cooked, so Rudy's wife slices the paddles into nickel- and quarter-sized pieces then blanches them in boiling water at least once, and sometimes twice, to extract the liquid. You can also sweat the slime out with a little olive oil in a covered skillet, and then simmer it away uncovered for 20 minutes or so.

Once your nopales are prepped, you can use them in all kinds of dishes. Rudy's favorite is sauteed and scrambled with eggs for breakfast, or his wife's secret recipe for tortitas de cameron. While Rudy wouldn't share that recipe with me, I did find one online that sounded similar to what he was describing.