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Cactus Links

Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger explain why cactus has always had a place on their restaurants' menus. 





Trendy gourmets have hyped nopales, apparently to no avail








Chefs Love Them but
Anglo Shoppers Shun Nopales

How Frida Kahlo Deslimed Them

Rustic Mexican Cactus Tacos

Betty Hamilton, co-manager of farmers markets in Pasadena and Glendale, stands alone among the Anglos she knows in at least one respect: she eats cactus paddles--nopales in Spanish. "I grew up in Arizona, and I’ve eaten them all my life," she says. "But I don’t know any of my Anglo friends who do." 

Nopales at the March 27, 2007 farmers market
in Culver City, Calif.

Since it opened 17 years ago, the market she manages in Pasadena’s Villa Park has always carried plenty of nopales, which the predominantly Latino clientele snap up. A few farmers have added small piles of nopales to their displays in most other major markets in the Los Angeles area that serve a largely white, middle- and upper-class crowd, including Hamilton’s Saturday morning market in Pasadena. But Hamilton reports, "I have not seen many Anglos buying them."

Nor have cactus paddles made it very far up the coast. "We have no nopales, and we don’t know of anyone who does, and we never have," reports Lilith Von Forester, on the staff of the organization that sponsors the Foot-of-Market and Ferry Plaza markets in San Francisco. "I haven’t seen a one," adds John Silvera, of the South Bay Farmers Market Association, sponsor of markets in the San Jose area. The gigantic Alemany market in San Francisco, which draws about 200 farmers on Saturdays, is one of the few northern farmers markets where nopales do turn up from time to time.

The chefs who made Southwestern cuisine chic have certainly tried to talk up nopales. The thorns aren’t much of a problem. Donning gloves, you can quickly shave them off with a knife (being careful to leave as much of the skin as possible intact). But the slime presents a stickier challenge.

The free-spirited Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had a rather elaborate method of desliming her nopales, according to a cookbook called Frida’s Fiestas, about her preferences in food. She boiled cactus strips in water until tender, rinsed them in cold water and then squeezed them tightly in a wet towel, letting them sit like that for 20 minutes. An easier way is to grill them over high heat, letting the slime sizzle off.

In the rustic cooking tradition of central Mexico, writes Diana Kennedy, in The Art of Mexican Cooking, the paddles are cut into fingers, leaving them attached at the base, then dipped into beer before being pressed down with a spatula on a hot grill for about four minutes per side. Tasting like green pepper, string beans, and asparagus--with a slightly sour, citric touch--they’re great in tacos, Kennedy declares.

In their prime, nopales are firm and unwrinkled, not flabby. If you attempt to defy the odds and handle them without gloves, at least remember this tip that Kennedy picked up: "Apply strong Scotch tape over the [thorns in your fingers] and pull off. If this does not work, then do as Mexican peasants do: run your fingers through your hair several times."

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef