Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Incredible, Edible...


Just to demonstrate how nutso I've gotten about food lately (your own blog posts can't be used against you in court, can they?)...

I have this gorgeous basket of new arrivals from Tecolote Farms (CSA Basket #6 if you are counting) plus an embarrassment of riches left over from last week's basket chilling in the refrigerator.  Nevertheless, I was talking to a friend of mine about landscaping stuff in general, and cacti blooming in particular, and she told me her landscaping guy shared with her that the little baby cactus pads on the plants currently in bloom, are edible.  

This guy said he grew up eating them and suggested since my friend had so many new pads on her plants, she ought to try them out.  

I have heard about eating cactus all my life (explained by having grown up in far northern Mexico, sometimes referred to as "central Texas" by natives).  We grew up knowing you can keep from dying of thirst in the desert because of the water stored in the plants, and that you can make a great jelly (or Margarita blend) out of the "pears". In restaurants specializing in Mexican cuisine, they commonly offer some sort of salad or soup from the pads.

However, after a lifetime of proximity, I'd never actually tried it myself, short of remarking aloud "I've always wondered about how these taste" when seeing it on a menu.

So I absolutely cannot explain to you why I went outside at lunchtime today, in the rain no less, took a sharp knife and sliced off one of the fresh small Nopalea Grande pads out front. (teaspoon is shown for scale) 
I followed the vague directions my friend passed along.  I rubbed the little protrusions off the pad.

I then took a knife and gently scraped off the white stubs left behind.
I scored the pad lightly with my knife and sauteéd it quickly in butter in a hot pan.  

I went out on a limb there with that last step.  I didn't google "cactus pad preparations" or anything sensible like that.  I just thought to myself in this weird "must...eat...cactus...pad..." fugue I was in, that everything tastes better browned in butter so I went there.

And OK, I'll admit it, I got the pan too hot and browned the butter overmuch before I threw the pad in.  I've only had this rangetop for oh, about 20 years, so clearly I will need more experience with it before I realize how long and how high a setting it needs to preheat.  I just wasn't thinking clearly (if at all) and it didn't matter that much because the little cactus pad cooked pretty promptly, without really burning.  It has a high moisture content, so I got away with it this time.  

And here is what I ended up with.A slightly smaller, nicely browned, chastened version of what I started with.

And how did it taste?  It was only a few bites and considering my inattention to the rangetop settings you might have reason to discount my abilities to describe flavors, but I think this is what would happen if a zucchini and an okra plant had a love child.  It mostly tasted "green", with a hint of sweetness, and a dollop of gooey to finish.  But gooey in that good way....

AFTER I had already eaten my little home grown cactus pad (Andrea, maybe I'm going to blame this little walk on the wild side on your Grow Your Own website) I googled and immediately came up with two less than reassuring sites. The first one featured a great photo of people feeding cacti to their turtles. The turtles certainly seemed to be enjoying their cactus pads, although I'm pretty sure those were uncooked. (The cactus pads, not the turtles. Well, OK, fair enough, the turtles weren't cooked either.)

The next site I hit was slightly more encouraging, and went into excruciating detail about the myriad health benefits of eating cacti. According to this site I was going to experience all sorts of amazing boosts to my immune system, higher energy levels, stabilized blood sugar, maybe the melting away of extraneous body fat and a higher IQ too, I got blurry eyed just reading.

Finally I hit a site with at least one serious recipe, which called for blanching rather than sauteéing the pads.  This recipe uses spined cacti, the nopale in my yard are of the non-spined variety. I am guessing they taste similar but who knows? A few days from now I may find myself heading out with knife and gloves to test that theory.

Maybe not my most thoroughly planned try of a new food source, but my "yard kill" test was a fun foray into Euell "tastes to me a little like wild hickory nuts" Gibbons territory. Since Euell has long gone to his eternal reward, maybe I'll parlay a book deal out of this.  "Stalking the Wild Nopale" has a nice ring to it, don't you agree?

In the meantime, I need to take my energized, immunized, intellectualized self back into the kitchen and get to cooking the non-wild veggies in the refrigerator.  For the moment, the rest of the landscaping plants are safe (from me at least).  

Next time I see nopal salad or sopa on a restaurant menu I can say with a knowing air "I like mine sauteéd better than blanched, don't you?".

And now, to finish, a little home grown cacti humor...

Q: If you try two different types of cactus and like them both equally well, then what do you have?

A: Pad tie. (rimshot!)

Come back any time ladies and gents, I'll be here all week.

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