Nopal cactus, also referred to as the prickly pear cactus, is a popular crop in the southwestern United States and Mexico. The nopal cactus forms large, teardrop-shaped pads that sprout new pads as the plant grows. These pads are frequently covered with glochids, small clusters of spines that are loosely distributed across the surface of each pad. Some commercially grown species of nopal cactus are spineless. Nopal cactus can be carefully harvested, prepared and eaten raw, boiled, fried, grilled and mixed into sauces and meat dishes and soups. It can also be used as a source of fibers and is frequently used for cattle feed.
Select a mature plant with new pads that are about hand-sized or slightly smaller. Look for pads that have a shine on the surface and not thick, as these can be stringy when eaten. The flesh should be medium green and crisp.
Grasp carefully the pad with a pair of tongs and cut the pad with the knife where it joins the parent pad. Place the cut pads in a bucket until the amount you wish to harvest is obtained.
Place each pad on a flat surface and hold it down at the end. Using a knife or vegetable peeler, carefully shave off the glochids from each pad on both sides of the pad to remove the spines. An alternative way to remove spines is to singe them with a propane torch or flame on a gas stove.
Store the nopal cactus pads in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.