To those unfamiliar with Mexican culinary traditions, the sharp needles of edible cactus pads are reason enough to keep fingers at bay.
But to the initiated, dealing with those prickly spines is no more daunting than peeling a banana.
These tender pads, or nopales , provide a versatile--and mild--embellishment to a variety of Mexican dishes for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Once the needles are removed--a simple task similar to scaling a fish--the moist pads are most often sliced or diced and then boiled. From there, the cactus pieces make their way into such preparations as salads, salsas, soups, sauces and scrambled eggs.
"The Latin community loves them a lot," said Ramone Vega, manager of the Santa Clara Ranch near Fillmore. "Using nopales to cook with is actually very common."
The Santa Clara Ranch produce stand, east of Fillmore on California 126, is a good place to buy fresh nopales. The cactus plants grow wild on the citrus ranch and are available at the stand year-round.
"The pads are pruned while they are still young. That's important. Otherwise, they will not be tender," Vega said.
Santa Clara Ranch foreman Eddie Bellamoeg said diced nopales are referred to as nopalitos. "I use nopales a lot," Bellamoeg said. "For the Mexican people, they are as common as enchiladas."
More than just a popular vegetable, the preparation of nopales is a time-honored religious tradition, Bellamoeg said. "In Mexico, it is traditionally used in the spring during Holy Week," he said.
The fleshy pads are a favorite food when observing Good Friday, the day Catholics refrain from eating meats.
"We fry nopalitos with a little oil in a pan and cook with cilantro, chilies, tomatoes and powdered shrimp," Bellamoeg said. This common preparation, an accompaniment to fish, is served with a tortilla, he said.
Nopales are pretty easy to come by in Ventura County. The Santa Clara Ranch stand sells nopales at 10 pounds for $5. Fresh supplies may also be found at area farmers' markets, some grocery stores and ethnic markets. Canned nopalitos are also available.
At Oxnard's La Gloria market, the bright green pads are a common sight in the produce section. Chema Mungia, head chef of the deli kitchen at La Gloria, said nopales can be prepared a number of ways and eaten hot or cold, spicy or mild.
"Nopales have the flavor and texture of green beans when not spiced," Mungia said.
Mungia provided the following instructions on preparing nopales for cooking:
Holding the pads down on a cutting board with a fork, scrape the needles off with a sharp knife, just as you would when scaling a fish. (It's just the needles you want to remove, not the skin.)
You can now either dice the nopales or slice into green bean-sized slivers.
The Santa Clara Ranch produce stand is at 1761 Telegraph Road (California 126), east of Fillmore. Call 524-2455.
La Gloria Market is at 430 S. Oxnard Blvd. Call 486-8735.
Robyn Loewenthal contributed to this story.
Nopales Con Tortas de Cameron (Cactus With Shrimp Patties)
2 cups of boiled nopalitos
2 separated eggs
1/2 cup dried powdered shrimp
1 cup red chile sauce
Mix boiled, diced nopales into red chile sauce and let simmer in a skillet. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold in yolks. Slowly sprinkle the powdered shrimp into the egg mixture and gently fold until completely blended.
Mold the shrimp mixture into small patties, then fry in three tablespoons of hot oil. When the shrimp patties are brown, drain off the excess oil and add the nopalitos and chile sauce. Simmer for five more minutes and serve with rice.
Ensalada de Nopalitos
5 pounds of nopalitos
3 onions, diced
2 bunches fresh cilantro
1 clove garlic
6 tomatoes, diced
13-14 small chiles verde
Salt and pepper to taste
Reach for a large pot and toss in nopalitos with one large onion cut in four pieces, one bunch of fresh cilantro, three or four chiles verdes, one clove of garlic and salt to taste. Immerse the mix in water and boil for 20 to 30 minutes or until well cooked.
Drain in a colander and rinse with cool water. Rinsing is essential to remove a slimy residue released by the cactus.
Next, remove all of the ingredients except the nopalitos and discard the rest. You'll now add fresh versions of each: six diced tomatoes, two onions, fresh cilantro and 10 small chiles verdes. Mix together with nopalitos and add salt to taste.
For breakfast, the same preparation can be used, except lightly fry the finished product in a pan and scramble with eggs. Viola, it's Nopalitos Con Huevo.
Nopalitos Salsa Roja: same preparation as above, but use a mild flavored chile and remove the seeds. Place three pounds of nopalitos with a cup of water in blender. Blend well. Pour in a saucepan and boil it with a little oil or lard for 15 minutes until it thickens. Let the mixture cool and you have a salsa for dips or spread over meats.