Cactii (nopales) are hell to clean. They have both thorns ("modified branches") and spines ("modified leaves"). Generally speaking, the thorns have been cut away before you even buy them but the spines are the size of an individual hair and extraordinarily sharp.
The CC got one stuck in his thumb when he picked up some paddles at the Mexican grocery store and there was hell to pay for three days until he finally managed to get it out.
Of course, this is a defense mechanism against omnivores like us who like to eat them.
Cleaning them is a slightly laborious process. You first have to cut away the spines on the edges so that you can even grasp it flat. Then, you have to scrape away each individual one with a sharp paring knife cutting against the direction of the spine. You need to remove not only the spine but the hard bumps as well. It's best done in the sink with occasional washings under running water.
The cactus as this point will ooze slimy juice which is its defense mechanism against getting injured. You need to wash this away.
You will need to carefully inspect the entire paddle with your fingers to make sure you haven't left any spines in there. You don't want these babies stuck in your throat!
Finally, it must be dried before you can cook it in the recipe below. (There are other ways e.g. boiling for which this is not necessary.)
Is this all worth it? You betcha!
They have a unique taste that's sort of like green beans but with a more tart flavor. They are absolutely terrific with eggs as well just like asparagus but with a sharper flavor.
(makes 8 tacos)
1 medium sized cactus
1/2 cup flour
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
8 small tortillas
1 small onion (cut into thin rings)
1/2 cup salsa roja
queso fresco (crumbled)
lime (cut into quarters)
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Prepare a flat baking tray on which you assemble the cactus "fries".
Cut the cactus into long thin strips that are about 1/2" across and 2 1/2" long. Each tacos will be stuffed with 3-4 of these.
Assemble three bowls. One with the flour, one with the beaten egg and one with panko breadcrumbs. Coat a cactus piece with egg; dunk it in the flour; dunk it back in the egg; roll in the breadcrumbs and lay it out on the flat sheet. Repeat with the rest.
Bake for 12 minutes in the oven. Check at the 10 minute mark. You want the panko breadcrumbs to be golden brown. Pull out.
Meanwhile, each tortilla must be heated on a griddle (comal) and kept under a pair of paper towels (or kitchen cloths) to keep them moist and flexible.
Assemble the tacos. Each taco is topped with a few cactus fries, some onion, lettuce, a quick drizzle of the salsa roja and the queso fresco crumbled on top.
Make sure you squeeze a lime on it right before you eat it. A dash or two of hot sauce is also a great addition.