Skip to comments.It's nopalitos season again
Posted on 04/04/2004 3:42:15 PM PDT by SwinneySwitch
Lent means it's a time of penance, abstinence, and fasting. It's a time when we abstain from eating meat on Fridays. It's a time when people prepare non-meat dishes, such as capirotada, salmon, fish, or potato patties, and nopalitos, or prickly pear. Besides capirotada, nopalitos are popular as a Lenten meal. The prickly pear, though, has many other uses.
It's called prickly pear because of the plant's sharp needles and pear-shaped fruit. It has green, pulpy, needle-filled leaves. Its bloom, however, unlike the plant, is beautiful because of vivid yellow or red colors. Unlike wildflowers that grow by the highways, prickly pear grows along fences or in the fields. The prickly pear can be planted in gardens; since it is a succulent, it needs little water.
Not long ago, when we visited my husband's sister-in-law who has a cactus plant in her backyard, I decided to take pictures of the yellow flowers, since it would be the only time I could take pictures at close range. As I got closer to the flower, I noticed a bee had settled right in the center of it. Both insect and bloom turned out to be a beautiful picture of nature worthy to be portrayed on canvas.
The prickly pear serves as forage for cattle during dry times. Sometimes, in droughts, ranchers depend on the cacti to fill in for hay or other plants that may have died because of the dry climate. The needles of the cactus are burned off with a blowtorch. Once the needles are burned, cattle eat the plants with no ill effects.
For us, the most important use of the cacti is as a main dish for Lent. Since we fast by not eating meat on Fridays, this plant is a favorite non-meat meal. Nopales can be prepared in as many different ways as there are tastes. Some people like them with chili powder, eggs, and green onions while other people like them with no chili powder. No matter how they're prepared, they please our taste buds. Nowadays, cacti can be found canned all year round, but though people may like them canned, most everyone prefers them fresh from the cactus plant.
The fun part of nopalitos season is picking them. A friend was telling me a story her father told. He said that many people seemed quite busy along a fence and a man not of our culture came along and was curious about what all those people were doing. Her dad told him it was Lent and therefore time to pick nopalitos to use as a meal.
When we lived in Sandia, we considered gathering these cacti as a field trip. We had the fields where they were readily available. The more people, the more enjoyable the trip. Mom, Grandma, my sister, our neighbor, and I would get together and take boxes to go and gather nopalitos. Once we came close to the plants, we would get mesquite leaves to layer the cacti on them. If we did not do that, the needles would stick to other leaves, and we would not be able to take them apart. The whole box of cacti would be ruined. To avoid that, we would then very carefully get hold of the cactus leaf, cut it from the bottom stem, and form a layer of cacti on top of the mesquite leaves. We could pick several layers of these leaves, depending on how big the cactus was, and we would take them home. At home, we would take them out one by one and take the needles off with a paring knife, and they were ready for cooking.
The prickly pear plants can grow anywhere. Cattlemen use them successfully as forage for their cattle, while we use them as a delicious, and tasty, meal for Lent.
Mary Mijares is a retired Ray High School English teacher. Feedback columnists, invited to contribute on a regular basis, express their own opinions.
Something delicious beneath the prickles:
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