For a long time, I thought all Mexicans in the LA-area had nopales (cactus) in their backyard. Of course, my sample size was small. All my relatives had nopales growing in their backyard. We did too.
The nopales, spread out in a corner of the backyard against a brick wall, were a nuisance to us kids who had to be extra careful while playing. On the plus side, I’m sure they deterred a thief or two from climbing the wall and we were never burglarized.
For Mamá Toní, a native of Zacatecas where nopales grew on every cerro (hillside), nopales are meant to be eaten. They’re for ensaladas and guisos. They go excellent with tortas de camarón during Lent and are an excellent side dish with carne asada. (I won’t even get in to the tasty tunas, or cactus pears.)
Nopales are not only on our frentes, they’re in our tummies too.
After saying her morning rosary and cooking el desayuno for Papá Chepe, she got to work on her monthly ritual of enfrascando nopales.
Mamá Toni started by examining the nopales in the corner of the backyard. They were taller than her with their pencas (“leaves”) spread in every which way. She chose the best looking pencas and cut them off with a large butcher knife. She tossed them in to a large basket. When it was full, she grabbed the basket and walked over to a table in the backyard. She stood as she worked on the next task, because as my mom says, “no work gets done while sitting.”
I finished my cereal and joined her outside in the mid-morning sun. It wasn’t hot yet, but it would be in an hour or two.
I watched intently as Mamá Toni worked with expert speed and efficiency to clean off all the thorns with the large butcher knife. To avoid pricking herself with the thorn, she’d hold the penca at the base where she cut it from the larger plant and shave off the thorns of each side of the penca. They littered the table. I kept my distance.
“No te pican?” I asked.
“No,” she replied and kept working without looking to me.
She placed each clean penca in a large bowl.
When she was done cleaning all the pencas, she moved the operation to the kitchen, out of the bright sun. She piled the pencas on the table so that they formed a bright green mound.
Mamá Toni went through that mound so quickly as she chopped the smooth pencas. I touched a slice. It was slimey with the nopal ooze.
“¿Quieres probarlo?” she asked.
I scrunched my nose. I wasn’t a picky eater, but the nopales were weird looking. “¿Se pueden comer así?” I asked. I didn’t know nopales could be eaten raw.
She took the small slice, sprinkled some salt on it and handed it to me.
It was my first time trying nopales. I was 8 years old.
“¿No te gusto?”
“Es que…” my Spanish failed me. I didn’t know how to say that nopales tasted green and a bit slimy.
She sensed my hesitation.
“Son buenos para la salud,” she offered.
I didn’t believe her, but I finished the rest of my small piece.
Mamá Toni got back to chopping. She worked fast. First, she chopped the penca into vertical strips about a centimeter thick. She held the long green lines together and turned them horizontally and began chopping them into perfect squares.
Once she was done with this, she started cooking the raw nopales and canning them in Mason jars. i didn’t pay much attention to this process, because I ditched the kitchen for a cooler place, like the shady tree in the front lawn. The ktichen and adjacent living room felt like a sauna. According to Mamá Toni, you needed a close environment to effectively can the nopales.
By the end of the day, we had a dozen jars of olive green nopales. Mamá Toni would repartir (divide) the jars. Her sons, Chuy and Roberto, always received more jars than her six daughters.
I eat nopales now. And that’s a good thing:
The dishes historically served alongside tortillas and beans have medicinal traits, too. Nopales — tasty cactus leaves still a staple food in much of Mexico — control blood sugar, possibly by mimicking insulin. (source: Houston Chronicle)
I should’ve known. Mamá Toni is a wise woman.
This post was inspired by Mexfiles