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Recipe: Tacos de Nopales

Nopal | Photo by Maria Zizka
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This is part of a series of multimedia stories curated through a collaboration between Earthworks Farm and KCETLink. Watch a segment from KCET's "SoCal Connected" and visit the project hub for more information.

This series of recipes highlights the crops grown at Earthworks Farm.

Nopales are the juicy, crunchy, edible paddles of the prickly pear cactus. Believed to be native to Mexico, pricky pear cacti have been cultivated and eaten for centuries throughout Latin America. During the 16th century, Spanish colonists carried the plants on boats back to Europe, where the cacti thrived in the arid Mediterranean climate and soon were found growing from North Africa to the coastline of Southern Italy and even as far east as Turkey.

As a prickly pear cacti grows, it forms tiny horizontal buds that expand to become full-sized paddles. A paddle is typically harvested when it is the size of an outstretched hand. Pricky pear cacti also produce fruits, which ripen in late summer and are enjoyed fresh in salsas or cooked down to a thick paste and made into candies.

Perhaps the most daunting part of cooking nopales is the first step: spine removal. Don't worry, it's really not all that difficult. You'll need to firmly grasp one end of the nopal (using a glove or an oven mitt, of course!) and then scrape the blade of a knife along the length of the nopal to remove the spines. Or, you could always buy cleaned nopales from your nearest Latin grocery store. Look for them from Easter through October.

Tacos de Nopales | Photo by Maria Zizka

Tacos de Nopales

Makes enough filling for 8 tacos

½ pound nopales
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 small spring onions or 1 white onion
3 small garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 large, fresh green pepper (such as Anaheim chile), stem and seeds removed, sliced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
16 (5-inch) corn tortillas
Sliced radish, for topping
Crumbled queso fresco, for topping
Lime wedges, for squeezing

To clean the nopales, grasp the narrow end with a potholder or kitchen towel. Scrape the blade of a knife down the cactus paddle to remove all the spines. Use the tip of the knife to cut out any remaining spines. Using a vegetable peeler, trim off the entire perimeter edge of the paddle, including the base where it was once attached to the cactus. Slice the cleaned nopales into ½-inch strips.

Heat a wide pot or pan over medium heat for 2 minutes. Trim the root end of each onion, peel away any papery layers, and slice the onion. Swirl the oil into the pot, then add the sliced onion, garlic, pepper, and cleaned nopales. Stir to coat the vegetables in the oil. Cover the pot with a lid, and cook for about 10 minutes. Remove the lid, stir in the salt, and continue to cook until most of the liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes.

To serve, char the tortillas on a gas burner or in a hot skillet. For each taco, stack 2 tortillas, scoop some warm nopales filling into the center, and top with radish, queso fresco, and lime wedges.

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