The cool (or sometimes irritating) thing about CSAs is when you’re given something that you would normally ignore if you were in a store or farmer’s market. It takes you out of your rut and makes you think and learn (again, this can be cool or irritating depending on what other craziness you have going on that week). But usually I relish the challenge of figuring out a way to prepare something that I don’t think I like and perhaps actually enjoy it. In this case, it was the ubiquitous – in these parts – nopales. Ie, cactus. In particular, the pad of a prickly pear cactus. Yes, the thing that’s normally covered in hellacious spines of impending pain and suffering should you even go near it. (Jump to the recipe)
Before you gasp, let me put your mind at ease: the CSA takes every single itty bit of spine off for you. Which doesn’t stop me from nervously running my finger tips gingerly over the entire surface. Because nothing is more wince-inducing than the mere idea of a cactus spine in your mouth. Shudder. No, these pale green ovals are as smooth as a baby’s behind by the time you get them in your little veggie bag of goodies. So, er, now what?
To start with, nopales have a taste and texture similar to a green bell pepper, but with a citrusy tang to it. So you can chop it up and use it in a stew or even keep it raw for a salad. Sounds nice, right? Except for one other characteristic: an oozing clear slime that exudes from any cut. Seriously, it’s like cactus snot. Shudder violently. Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to completely put you off nopales like that. I may be using a drop more drama than necessary to describe it. Think of it as okra. Tons and tons of people apparently have no problem with okra’s slipperiness – ask thousands of people from Louisiana and others parts of the Deep South. But like sweet iced tea, I just never developed a taste for it.
So when I was presented with these lovely cactus pads, I figured I had some Googling ahead of me. Surely there must be some way to prepare this desert vegetable so I might actually like it. The one thing that is supposed to do the trick, I haven’t tried yet: grilling. Grilling in general is not a casual every day thing at our house: we don’t have a gas grill and charcoal takes a while to set up and I don’t have the patience most weeknights. So the timing just hasn’t worked out yet. If you want to try it, I believe the strategy is to grill them whole over hot coals for just a few minutes on each side (let me know how it goes!)
But I did find something I didn’t expect: recipes for using cactus in smoothies. Now that seemed like an idea. I tried a couple of different recipes with mixed results until I found the One, the only one that truly cut out the slime factor and has actually become my favorite summertime smoothie. And the simple trick is freezing!
First, you julienne the pads (just thinly slice them) and then stick them into a ziploc bag and into the freezer.
Then forget about them like you forget about the majority of the contents of that icy domain. After a couple of weeks, when the weather finally starts getting Tucson hot and you need a lil cooling off, remember about your little green icicles.
The recipe itself, Licuado de Nopal from Muy Bueno Cookbook, is insanely simple – frozen nopales (about half a snack bag’s worth), cucumber, lime juice and water. I adapted it slightly to add some honey and used more cucumber. Also, the cucumber was an Armenian cucumber.
You may not be familiar with these kinds of cukes. They’re a staple of the summer CSA because unlike their English counterparts, they can handle our hot, dry weather. They’re a little crunchier than regular cucumbers and you don’t have to peel them.
Ah, this is the definition of a summer drink. Very fresh, no slipperiness and if you added something sweet and luscious like pineapple or even mango, it could only be amazing. As is, it’s an extremely refreshing and surprisingly healthy way to start the day. According to the post:
This cactus smoothie is choc-full of antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and B, cleanses the liver and colon and provides an uber-rich source of fiber and hydration.
As my stash of green icicles rapidly dwindles, I’m keeping my eye open for more nopales in the market. Heck, I might even get the nerve to try to harvest some from the prickly patch in our front yard. Or not.
Licuado de Nopal (Cactus Smoothie)
Adapted slightly from Muy Bueno Cookbook
1/2 cup nopal (cactus pads cleaned, spines removed), julienned and frozen
3/4 Armenian cucumber (or 1 English cucumber, peeled) chopped
1 lime, juiced
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup crushed ice
1 Tablespoon honey or 1/2 T agave nectar
Store julienned nopal in snack bags in the freezer. To make one smoothie use only half the bag of nopal.
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend. If you want it to be less chunky then blend longer and or add more water.
As the (locally) famous song goes: Florida’s got beaches, We got cactus