Long ago, one summer in a city built atop the swamps of central Florida, there lived a girl who dreamed of being a Broadway star. She spent her evenings chasing a boy who was no good for her and her days shepherding tourists on an outer-space-cartoon-adventure at a popular theme park. Not that one; no, the other one.
To the mostly ignorant bliss of countless Brazilian and British vacationers, there were numerous safety checks in place to prevent injury. As long as everyone played by the rules, no one got hurt.
One day, the girl with Broadway dreams was working “mission control” of her assigned attraction. She gave the usual pre-show spiel, “Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, Captain Yogi has requested your assistance in rescuing Elroy...” Her colleagues in the “spaceship” gave the all clear. Everyone was seated.
“Please raise your arms as the safety bar comes down.” She pushed the button that lowered the bar. “As the bar locks into place, it will tighten slightly. If you are uncomfortable, please alert one of Captain Yogi’s assistants.”
All the lights on the panel turned green as the safety bars locked into place. Except for one red light. Then someone screamed.
She quickly pushed the button that released the bars, and all of Captain Yogi’s assistants rushed to the screaming woman in the front of the spaceship. The woman did not raise her arms as instructed, and when the bars locked into place... ugh.
It still hurts me to tell it. Her arm was broken. In two places, I found out later.
As you may have guessed, I was that starry-eyed girl chasing the bad boy (well, not that bad—he was a theater geek who traveled with juggling balls and a custom set of vampire fangs) and terrorizing tourists. I think of that woman every time I start to ignore safety suggestions for the sake of expedience—or hear the Jetson’s theme song.
Now that it’s March in the Northeast, it finally feels like February again, and I wanted something warm and hearty. I pulled out an old recipe I’ve made many times. But this time I went all out. I used fresh cactus.
I’ve made this recipe several times for potluck gatherings with great success, but I’ve always used cactus from a jar. When I stopped in at my local Mexican grocer over the weekend, the fresh nopales called to me.
Nopal, or prickly pear cactus, is popular in Mexican and Southwestern cooking. Common in salads, grilled dishes, stews, and served with eggs, nopales are rich in vitamins A, B, C, and iron. Their hearty texture makes them a favorite during the Lenten season, which we’re in, when Catholics just say no to meat.
Of course, cooking with cactus is not as dangerous as riding a theme park ride with a musical theater nerd at the helm, but you will want to take some safety precautions to make the experience as painless as possible. You may have heard one of these tips before, but it bears repeating.
1) Use tongs
When choosing the nopales at the store, removing them from the bag, transferring them from the counter to the table, or from the floor back to the table when you forgot and picked one up with your hands and then dropped it, use tongs.
2) Wear gloves
Tongs become impractical when you move to the spine removal stage. You’ll want to wear gloves. Thick dishwashing or gloves work best, but disposable latex/vinyl/rubber food service gloves will be fine if that’s what you have. I used my dishwashing gloves to work on my bicycle last week, so I went with the thinner option and all was well.
3) Keep the gloves on when working with peppers
Chili peppers get their heat from an oily chemical called capsaicin. Once that stuff is on your hands it is hard to get off. It can burn your skin, eyes...anything you touch. I made the mistake of scratching near my eye after cutting jalapeños once. Oh, for the love of Elroy!
Once you have your safety gear on, cleaning nopales is easy (if a little time-consuming).
- Lay the paddle flat and, with a pairing knife or chef’s knife, cut off the bottom end and trim around the outside edge.
- With your knife, cut off the spines and any nubs that protrude from the paddle. You don’t have to peel off the entire outer layer. Flip it over and repeat.
- Wash the paddle of any dirt, stuck on spines, and some of the goo that will have seeped out from the cactus.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to chop and make chili. Believe me, it’s worth the effort. This dish is hearty, but not heavy. To the original recipe, I added corn and queso fresco (fresh white cheese), to give it a sweet and salty to balance the tangy cactus and spicy chilies.
The fresh cactus took a bit longer to cook than it’s jarred cousin, and it was touch-and-go there at about the 15-minute mark. It was starting to look done, but when I tasted it, it was kind of sour, almost bitter. So I let it keep cooking, and whew. It worked.
After 25 minutes or so, it came out perfectly: tender, but not mushy, and lively with chilies and cilantro. It looks kind of like a pot of green beans when it’s done. This dish is such a crowd-pleaser. Everyone is surprised—and delighted—when they find out they’re eating cactus. And that no one got hurt in production.
Adapted from Nopales Chili
2 lb nopales (about 6 cups), cleaned and cubed
1 tbsp neutral oil, like canola
1 large onion, chopped same size as nopales
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, diced (remove the seeds if you want to avoid the heat)
2 serrano peppers, diced (remove the seeds if you want to avoid the heat)
1 cup corn, fresh, frozen (thawed), or canned
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 oz queso fresco (fresh white cheese), optional
1) Don your kitchen gloves. Clean nopales by slicing off spines with a knife (see above).
2) Keep those gloves on. Chop onions, garlic, and peppers. Go ahead and chop cilantro while you’re at it.
3) Heat oil in large skillet or saucepan. My cast iron skillet was to small; I had to switch to my big 6-qt saucepan. Sauté onion for a couple of minutes.
4) Add nopales to the onions and stir. Sauté for a three to four minutes. Add garlic, chilies, and salt.
5) Cover and simmer until nopales are tender, about 25 minutes. They will look like canned green beans when they are done.
6) After about 20 minutes, add corn and continue to simmer.
7) When nopales are tender, remove from heat and stir in cilantro. Top with queso fresco if desired and serve over rice or tortillas. Dig in and marvel, cactus: delicióso!
Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
Per serving: 139.8 calories, 6.9g fat, $1.14
2 lb nopales (about 6 cups): 84 calories, 0g fat, $3.00
1 tbsp canola oil: 120 calories, 14g fat, $0.08
1 large onion: 80 calories, .4g fat, $.70
6 cloves garlic: 25.2 calories, 0g fat, $.07
2 jalapeño peppers: 8 calories, 0g fat, $.16
2 serrano peppers: 4 calories, 0g fat, $.16
1 cup corn: 177 calories, 2g fat, $0.45
1/2 cup cilantro: 11 calories, 0g fat, $.18
1 1/2 tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $.02
3 oz queso fresco: 270 calories, 18g fat, $.88
Totals: 699.2 calories, 34.4g fat, $5.68
Per serving: 139.8 calories, 6.9g fat, $1.14