Nopales are the cactus pads (technically cladodes) of the same cactus that produces the Tuna fruit. This is an important vegetable in they dryer regions of Mexico and Central America where most vegetables won't grow. The photo specimen in the center was 11 x 5 inches, 3/8 inches thick in the middle and weighed 7-1/8 ounces. Pads that fall from the cactus to the ground will sprout roots wherever they touch the ground and will start a new cactus plant.
In the US Southwest fresh nopales are available in produce markets, generally in two forms: whole pads (nasty spines and all) and pads prepared and cut into short strips. In other parts of the country these strips are available canned, and will work in recipes.
Buying and Storing
Buy whole pads that are bright green and between 8 and 12 inches long. Really small pads will cook to mush and larger pads that have turned blue-green have tough skins and may be fibrous. Whole pads will keep, wrapped in the refrigerator, for a couple weeks as they are still fully alive. At room temperature they will lose water and start to shrivel.
Bags of cut strips should be refrigerated if kept for more than a day, and used within a couple days.
Outside the Southwest US, Mexico and Central America you'll probably have to by canned strips, but these should work OK as the canning process is similar to the short boiling used to prepare strips for recipes.
If you have your own prickly pear cactus and they have little cotton-like puffs on the pads, they are infected with cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus) which will eventually kill them if not treated. You can confirm this by scratching a few puffs and observe the bright red stain that results.
The female cochineal insects exude carminic acid dye which is gathered by scraping off the insects and crushing them. This was the dye used to make the British Redcoats coats red, but today it is used as a natural food coloring and in lipstick and other cosmetics.
Presuming you don't want to start a dye factory, small infestations can
be handled by scraping the insects off the pads. For larger infestations
spray a normal dilution of malathion with some dish washing detergent added
to assure the spray penetrates to the insects.
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