Is that what you are thinking? It’s a reaction I get often when I speak longingly of cactus in salads, or in scrambled eggs, or in red mole sauce with pork or, one of my favorites; nopales con tortas de camaron. Go ahead and think ewww, that leaves more delicious nopales (cactus) for me.
Growing up, nopales were an almost daily part of my meals as were beans and rice. My grandfather, Papa was very proud of his towering nopale plants that stood in his back garden against the garage wall. The sun hit strong there and the nopales grew and grew. I loved going out back with him, both of us armed with pinsas (tongs), a long knife and a plastic bag. Papa showed me how to slice carefully at an angle so a new cactus paddle would grow in place of the one I cut. I’d pinch one end with the tongs and carefully slice then drop it gingerly into my bag. Often, he’d let one or two fall to the floor and when I looked up at him, he’d say in that raspy voice of his “Para que crescen mas.” So that more could grow. That’s all it took, you’d drop a cactus paddle into the dry earth and before you knew it, a cactus plant was born and competing with its brothers for the sun against the pale, wooden garage wall.
Once we had our ration of nopales we’d take them to my grandma and then more fun would start. She’d carefully lay out cut open paper bags on the old patio table outside and bring out her sharpest knives. Papa would look at them critically, occasionally taking out his sharpening stone and working on them till they met his high standards. Grandma would smile that special smile she kept just for him when he handed her the newly sharpened knife and get to work. She’d hand me a small knife and a cactus paddle with the biggest thorns to remove (bigger is easier, those small ones will get you), so that I could learn the fine art of removing thorns from cactus. It IS an art form. Have you ever seen a Latina woman remove thorns from cactus? It’s fast, intense and they never get stuck. My grandmother could have a pile of those cleaned in no time, while I struggled with my one paddle. Eventually, I learned and got good at it but nowhere near my grandmother’s artistry.
Once they were stripped of thorns, my grandmother washed the nopales and put them into a large pan of water with a whole quartered onion and brought them to a rolling boil till they were just tender and had changed color. She’d let them cool, then drain and rinse with cold water. For days afterwards we’d have them scrambled into eggs for breakfast, in salad if it were summertime and sometimes she’d make her delicious red chile sauce and serve them with crispy bits of pork.
Now, I cheat. I buy them peeled and diced whenever I can, but on those rare days that I have time and am missing my grandmother, I take out my sharpest knife, lay out some paper bags and get to work.
Here’s my recipe for Nopales con Tortas de Camaron (Cactus with Shrimp Cakes)
About 2 cups of diced nopales, cooked
1 oz. Chile California
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp. Knorr Pollo
Water or chicken broth
3 tbsps. Flour (you can add more or less depending on how thick you like it)
1 oz. Shrimp powder
2 egg whites
2 egg yolks
Drain the cooked nopales and set aside.
In a heavy frying pan or sauce pan, brown the flour, whisking to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the bay leaf and chile California when the flour is nicely browned. Keep whisking adding in hot water or chicken broth till you have a nice gravy-like consistency. Add Knorr pollo to taste and let simmer, whisking occasionally for about ten minutes. If it gets too thick, add a little more broth or water.
Turn off the heat and set aside, covered.
In a large frying pan, add oil about half way up and heat on medium flame.
In a mixing bowl whisk two egg whites until stiff. Think meringue. When stiff peaks form, slowly whisk in the egg yolks one at a time. Shake in the shrimp power while still whisking little by little. If you do it all at once, your batter will go flat.
With a spoon, scoop up tablespoon sized dollops of the batter and carefully slide into the hot oil. They will puff up quickly so only do a few at a time. Taking a spatula or slotted spoon, turn them over once and let brown. Scoop out and drain on paper towels or brown paper bags. They will flatten a bit so don’t freak if they do.
Once they are all done, stir the nopales into the chile sauce and heat for about 8 minutes. One by one add the shrimp tortas into the nopale mixture then serve. If you have a greedy son named Phillip, watch those tortas because they WILL disappear off the paper where they are draining long before you can get them into the chile. This is where a good smack on the hand or a chancletaso comes in handy, although at twenty-nine he’d still rather get his hand smacked than miss an opportunity to filch tortas from the plate.
Serve with rice, beans and freshly made tortillas.