The edible prickly pear nopal “stems,” known more widely as cactus paddles, pads, or nopales, are a centuries-old Mexican staple. This thorny plant was central to the Aztec tale of Tenochtitlan, which translates to “place of the cactus.” Today, that special place is Mexico City. Mexico’s coat of arms depicts this historical perspective with an eagle perched on a cactus and devouring a snake. In Texas, cactus is also the official state plant.
While the paddles look more like leaves, they’re actually stems (pencas) growing from the main stalk. Fruit (tuna), which is also an edible treat, sprouts from the pads. Because it is so easily grown in desert climates, you’ll find cactus a popular choice on New Mexican menus, too.
Of course, the Mayans and Aztecs were quite ingenious in finding medicinal and household uses for this plant. In the past, it has found its way into anti-inflammatory remedies and waterproof roofing protectant. Its edible parts contain high amounts of fiber along with an impressive list of minerals and vitamins. This combination of properties is proving to be effective in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. Testing continues to prove its beneficial properties help reduce blood sugar levels for diabetes treatment.
Among the many nopal recipes, you’ll find egg dishes, relishes, and soups along with our classic stuffed paddles that are deep-fried to a golden brown. When nopales are sliced or chopped, they’re called nopalitos. Taste-wise, think of an extra-mild green bean. If you’re lucky, you’ll find paddles that are cleaned, but more likely you’ll have to remove the thorns, along with smaller hair-like spikes.
As you work, the cactus will begin to seep a slimy sap, similar to okra. Most of it will blanch and rinse off before cooking. The filling for deep-fried cactus paddles includes jack cheese, onions and jalapenos. Use a classic fry batter of your choice. Plan on a single paddle for each person, if you’re serving it with – or as – a side dish.
Deep-Fried Stuffed Cactus Paddles
Makes 6 servings
6 cactus paddles
1/2 onion, sliced
2 jalapenos, thinly sliced
Sliced Monterey Jack cheese (enough for two layers, each paddle)
Oil for frying (at least enough to cover half the paddles in a skillet)
1 cup flour (or enough to dredge)
Fresh or jar salsa of choice for topping
Select hand-sized paddles that are firm. Wear protective gloves and use a knife to scrape off thorns and the surrounding eyes. Trim around the edge where spikes are more plentiful. Rinse well and use a clean scrubby to remove remaining spiky hairs.
Carefully slice paddles in half working toward the bottom stem edge. Leave stem edge intact. Rinse and place in a boiling pot of water for 3 minutes. Remove, cool and rinse; then dry on paper towels.
Place jalapeno and onion slices under a broiler and cook until they begin to crisp.
Spread paddles open and work on one side only. Add a layer of cheese, then onions and jalapenos, then a top layer of cheese. Seal with toothpicks.
Separate two egg whites; reserving yolks. Whip the whites until they become stiff. Fold in yolks and continue beating until well-blended.
Dredge paddles in egg mixture, then cover both sides in flour. Drop into hot oil (in a skillet or deep fryer) and let brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve.
Serve with a fresh salsa topping if desired.