An old acquaintance recently moved to Arizona and expressed an interest in cooking cactus. Since I'm always looking for an excuse to go to Mercado Latino, I swung by and grabbed a few paddles of the prickly pear cactus, known as nopales or nopalitos in Spanish.
Here's step by step instructions for preparing them before cooking (as always, click the thumbnails for full-sized images):
1) Rinse off the paddles, being careful not to stick yourself. Yes, there will be spines, it's cactus.
2) Using a long sharp knife, slice from the base of the paddle to the tip, just taking off the little bumps that contain spines. (This will take some practice, and obviously my technique is not perfect here. Trim around the edges and take off the top and bottom after the shaving.
3) Once you've got the paddle naked, give it another rinse and then slice up into whatever size you want: small strips for tacos or salad, bigger chunks for stews. (Note that in stews, the cactus juice acts as a natural thickening agent, similar to okra. Bear in mind that some of the slimy texture remains through the cooking process, so if you have a problem with okra, this might not be for you.) For most preparations, you'll now want to dunk all the pieces in boiling, salted water for five minutes and then rinse and drain. Or you can buy pre-prepared nopalitos like in the little baggie I have here. The whole paddles have a fresher flavor, but it is a lot of work. The third option is canned, but those are often packed with peppers and onions to boost up the flavor after processing. Texture-wise they're going to be limp. Think about the difference between fresh whole mushrooms, pre-washed and sliced mushrooms, and canned mushrooms.
I took the chopped cactus and cooked it in just a dab of bacon grease until nice and soft. They taste kind of like green beans, and are used in lots of traditional dishes. Here I stewed up some pork with tomatoes and onions, and made little tacos with the shredded meat, nopalitos, fresh cilantro, and some crumbly queso fresco. (If anyone else attempts this recipe, get the most acidic tomatillo-based salsa verde you can find--it needs the additional tartness.)
I had two wines from the "Spirit Hawk" series of Lander-Jenkins Vineyards, a 100% sustainably grown operation involving winemaker Steve Rued of the Rutherford Wine Company and a family of Welsh immigrants (Iechyd da!) that have been involved in winemaking since the 1880s. With this meal and the heat outside, a chilled white was the obvious choice. The 2008 Chardonnay ($14, 13.5% abv) is sourced from various California regions and is 97% Chardonnay with 3% Muscat Canelli. Two thirds in stainless steel with the last third in French oak, leading to a balanced wood profile. Big apricot and honey aromas, firm acidity, and a lovely full fruit flavor of apricot nectar without being sweet or cloying. Little vanilla and floral aroma after it's rested for a bit.
Later, when things had cooled off and it was time for a contemplative glass of red wine, I opened the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($14, 13.5% abv). 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 2% Zinfandel, and 1% Petite Verdot, fully fermented in French oak. Deep plum and blackberry aroma, touch of wild blueberries. Surprisingly light mouthfeel with tannins that firm up on the finish. This is liable to give you a strong craving for blackberry pie.
The Lander-Jenkins wines are new to the marketplace (this is the inaugural release), and with 3,000 cases of each, they may not be available everywhere this year. But they're both excellent bargains with great performance, and definitely worth checking out.