If at first I don’t succeed … well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
I was in Chino, California visiting oat and wheat crops last fall when I was introduced to a type of edible cactus called Nopales.
I’d never before considered cactus as anything other than ornamental and dangerous because of the sharp spines. (I once attended a college party where a guy licked an indoor cactus plant — it wasn’t pretty.)
So when I met Ruben, a Nopales farmer, I was naturally skeptical. I approached his crop with trepidation.
He explained that Nopales is a staple in Mexican households and that there are many ways to eat them (with spines removed, of course). The pads can be eaten diced or whole, often as a substitute for meat or with eggs. They are also a complement to salsa or taco topping, or as Ruben prefers, grilled. And, don’t be surprised if you soon see tortillas made with a combination of ground corn and Nopales.
Ruben, who farms 12 acres of the plant for Hispanic food markets, is one of only a few commercial growers in Southern California, though he says a lot more people are growing the plant on one-acre or smaller parcels. Most is grown in Mexico, but Ruben tells me China is now cultivating the cactus too.
I was awestruck by their physical appearance.
The cacti stood about three feet tall (that’s how Ruben likes to keep them) and two to three feet wide. They were a stunning bright green. Clusters of oblong, thin pads grew from a single plant, one pad stacked upon the other. Their skin was smooth, firm and strong, but they were covered in spines. Prickly, make-me-bleed, spines!
I went home that day and thought, get over yourself and try Nopales. I texted a friend in Mexico and she confirmed she eats it. Another friend grows the cactus at home.
Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. I just didn’t see the pads as food, though they did make it to my compost pile.
Months later the shame of my Nopales failure lingered. I phoned Ruben for help. He directed me to a Mexican restaurant that in his opinion makes the best dishes using the cactus.
With my 4-year-old son in tow, we headed to Las Brisas.
I was pleasantly surprised! I ordered a plate of sautéed Nopales with onions and spices and topped with queso fresco. The taste was light and savory and reminded me of okra, which is one of my favorite vegetables. I would definitely order it again.