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December 14, 2010 > Beyond sticker shock

Beyond sticker shock

This year, long time Fremont resident and financial planner, Ruthe P. Gomez invited her good friends, Susan and Lee Stoney to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner complete with turkey and all the trimmings at her house. But, this dinner included an unusual twist; a lesson in the culinary art of preparing cactus. Though prickly and capable of significant damage if handled improperly, when prepared correctly, cactus plants can be sumptuous. Ysabel Serrata, an expert in cactus preparation, showed guests how to prepare cactus pads (nopales) and its fruit (tuna) for consumption. This favorite food in Mexico and Latin America (as well as other parts of the world) is tasty but requires skill to remove protective spines; a task that can be daunting.

Serrata says that those inclined to taste the plant should either learn how to clean and remove the spines safely or buy prepared cactus, generally available during the warm spring and hot summer months. Served raw, grilled or boiled, cactus is a versatile addition to salads, barbeque or any meal. Each type of cactus nopales has a distinctive taste as does the "fruit" which can range from refreshingly sweet to tart.

Cactus nopales is often used as a vegetable ingredient in recipes that vary from egg dishes and side dishes to a snack, eaten raw. The "tuna" is a great addition to fruit salads. Recipes are available on the internet, but Ysabel, who does not follow written recipes - "I have never used [written] recipes in my life" - says that a simple procedure after the nopales is properly free of stickers is to cut the cactus pads into small square pieces, then boil until tender (10-20 minutes) and rinse. A bit of oil and favorite accompaniments such as onion, garlic, coriander, cilantro or chili can be added before eating as a side dish with other vegetables or mixing with scrambled eggs.

Nopales is versatile and can be prepared in many ways, served as a sole ingredient or combined with other foods: eggs, soups, chili, tortilla fillings, or stuffed with cheese and deep fried. When comfortable with cactus as a food, experimenting with its texture and taste opens a myriad of possibilities; something unusual for a family meal, barbeque or gathering of friends.

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