11/03/2011 05:40 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2012

How To Work With Nopales

When working with cactus paddles, chef Iliana de la Vega of The Culinary Institute of America advises using caution: The brown spots on the green flesh of the paddle contain spines, and some aren't visible to the naked eye. She suggests using tongs to hold the paddle while you cut off the smaller stem end, then using an index finger to press the paddle down while you cut off the edges with a paring or chef's knife. The next goal is to remove all of the spines and brown areas--lightly cut into the flesh and use a scraping motion to clean the paddles. Once they're cleaned, you're ready to cook with your paddles. Nopales should not be eaten raw: You can boil, grill, or pan-sear them.

For 60 years, The Culinary Institute of America has been setting the standard for excellence in professional culinary education. In this video series, experienced chefs and educators show you how to tackle essential cooking techniques.

Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Chef Iliana de la vega from the Culinary Institute of America, and I'm going to show you this kitchen basic: how to work with nopales, or cactus paddles.

Nopales are intimidating with all those spines. So how to work with them? First of all, be careful when you grab them. You can use a pair of tongs to hold them. Meanwhile you cut here; make your first cut here at the base like this. We have to choose a safe spot to put our finger on, someplace with no spines - so pick one, and then we will cut off the edge. As you work you will need to find more safe spots, so look where you put your finger, or your two fingers, to hold down the nopale. You don't want to touch any of those little brown spots, because they may have spines that you can see - or spines that you cannot see. You don't want that in your finger!

Now we want to remove all those brown spots from the two surfaces of the nopale. But we don't want to remove too much of the flesh, so we will work slowly until we remove all of them. You can also use a paring knife, instead of this one - whatever works more comfortably for you. Keep going until you finish them all. If you take off a little bit more of the flesh, not only the spines, that's fine too: no worries. This side looks pretty good; let's move to the other side and do the same thing. There are places that you will sometimes see in supermarkets, where they have someone doing this for you; that is also advisable.

Now that we have all the spines gone, the nopale is ready to be cooked. It is a vegetable that you don't eat raw. You need to cook it somehow: boiled, grilled, or just pan-seared. Either way, this is a great vegetable.