Nopales, the paddles of the prickly pear cactus, are a staple in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. They are usually boiled or pickled, and made into salads or sold in big jars as strips.
I think a good cactus paddle, however, can make for a pretty good vegetarian main course dish. I set out to prove it by searing these cactus paddles like a steak and turning them into main dish of a vegetarian meal.
Unlike steak you purchase at the store, cactus paddles have lots of little prickers on them. Obviously, a mouthfull of spikes is no treat (unless you like Whizzo Chocolates' "Spring Surprise", that is), so we must clear them off first to prepare the paddles.
Take a large kitchen knife. Holding the knife at nearly vertical across the width of the cactus, scrape the surface of the cactus until the little pockets holding the sharb barbs come off. Trim the edges from the paddles. RInse and inspect carefully for any remaining barbs. Remove them by scraping.
That's all you need to do to prepare the paddles for the recipe below. I served these with a baked onion, two lime wedges apiece, and slices of plum tomato. Delicious.
3-4 cactus paddles, prickers scraped off, well rinsed, very bottoms part trimmed (about 1/2")
juice of one lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt, pepper to taste
In a skillet, heat the oilve oil to just below smoking. Introduce the paddles and add either grill weights or a ceramic bowl in which you can place a glass half-filled with water. The idea is to press the flesh of the cactus into the bottom of the skillet to make it blacken and cook more quickly.
When the underside of the cactus is slightly blackened, and otherwise changed to a light green (about 2-3 minutes), turn the paddles, thick side toward the inside. Replace the bowl and glass or grill weights to weigh the paddles down.
Remove the weights and hit the paddles with half lime juice. Turn the paddles over, and hit the other side with the rest of the lime juice. Cook for about 15 seconds. Salt and pepper to taste.
The lime juice and naturally lightly sour cactus go together very well with the char and the olive oil flavors. I think you'll enjoy this dish quite a bit, and your kids can brag that they're so tough they eat cactus for dinner.