There’s a fine line between adventurous and foolhardy, and sometimes I find myself pushing the limits of good sense. As a farmer, I get to learn and experience new things almost every day – but trying nopales for the first time truly tested my comfort zone.
One summer day in Chino, my harvest crew called me from a farmer’s alfalfa field, surprised that some of the crop had been replaced by rows of small cactus plants. I got in touch with the owners, Ruben and Elena, to find out what was going on.
They told me that they’d been seeing demand from the local Mexican population for this particular variety of cactus, referred to as “nopales” (no-pah-less) or “prickly pear.”
These cactus pads are a popular ingredient in Mexico – they even appear on the Mexican flag. Nopales thrive in the mild but warm Chino environment, so Ruben and Elena decided to try cultivating them for the local specialty markets.
I first met these two almost 10 years ago. Ruben is your typical farmer type: friendly, easygoing, and always calm and collected. Elena is a loving wife and mother who is a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. They are both proud of their Mexican heritage and always happy to share their knowledge and culture with curious folks like me.
I grew up on a ranch with nopales growing wild all over the place, but like most people I kept my distance.
I will never forget my first and last up-close encounter with cactus. When I was a wise young kid, I thought it would be a great idea to jump over the cactus garden at my friend’s house. Let’s just say that I spent the rest of the day using pliers to pull cactus spines out of my body.
I’ve avoided cactus ever since. But Ruben really likes them, so I finally worked up the courage to ask him if he would cook some nopales for me.
He enthusiastically agreed and invited me over to harvest, clean, and cook the nopales. As Ruben drove me and my son out to the nopales patch, he explained, “Nopales are a very traditional Mexican food. If you go to most Mexican restaurants in the U.S., they’ll have nopales in some form, but not fresh like here. In Mexico, they’ll definitely have it.”
Since it was technically still winter, we went searching for some nopales in a large jungle of cactus that had been growing wild for many years. Ruben explained how the young, hand-sized pads have the best flavor and tenderness. I watched him carefully grab the pads at the base and twist them off.
This may have been my first farming adventure where I didn’t jump right in and get dirty. I hung back, remembering my last encounter with the vicious-looking needles, but Ruben wouldn’t let me off that easy. He emerged with several pads and told me to climb in there and pick some nopales.
The young nopales weren’t nearly as lethal as the older ones, but they were covered in tiny, white spines that would easily slip into your skin. Ruben said, “I rub my hands in my hair to remove any spines, but that won’t work for you since you don’t have any hair.” We all laughed and filled up a bag with nopales pads, then headed to the house to prepare them for cooking.
At the house, Ruben’s wife Elena met us with a cutting board and knife. She quickly began fileting the ends off the pads before gently cutting and scraping off the spines. It reminded me of cleaning a fish, slimy insides and all.
When she finished, I was still nervous about putting any spines near my mouth, so I grabbed the knife to go over the spines again. I swear that I scraped off a few, but Ruben and Elena just laughed.
After rinsing the nopales, Elena told me, “My way to eat Nopales is boiled in a salad. Rueben’s favorite is grilled with salt.”
I assumed that we would just try one style, but I was wrong. Elena diced her nopales, boiled them, and mixed them into a salad with fresh tomato, onion, cilantro, lemon juice, and salt. Meanwhile, Ruben simply placed the whole cactus pads on the grill and added salt.
Elena loaded up a warm corn tortilla with the nopal salad and homemade beans – it looked so good that I started to think I could be a vegetarian. I took one bite and was immediately impressed by the medley of fresh flavors.
Nopal has a sour taste that definitely stands out.
On its own, it had hints of bell pepper, salt, lime, and tomato. It was still somewhat slimy, even after being cooked, with the consistency of well-cooked asparagus.
With Ruben’s nopales beginning to show a little char, it was now time to try the BBQ method. I loaded a warm corn tortilla with pork, beans, and several slices of nopales. Even though Elena’s nopal salad was delicious, refreshing, and healthy, I quickly remembered why I could never give up on meat.
The rich pork flavors blended perfect with the sour and salty nopales. Ruben exclaimed, “You must really like them!” as I went back for one after another, each time with a different combination of toppings.
In the end, my favorite combination was the meat, beans, a little bit of nopal salad, a strip of grilled nopal, and avocado. It was so good, I briefly considered swapping out my own alfalfa field for nopales, but then I remembered that I don’t have the proper mechanism to remove the spines from my hands.
I still can’t believe that I willingly ingested something that has haunted me since childhood. New experiences can always be nerve-wracking, but time and again I’ve found that it’s better to take the plunge.
You might just find something new to love, even if it means digging through a few barbs.