By J.M. Hirsch
So when the temperature recently dropped to a brisk -37 C, I shouldn't have been surprised to find myself staring longingly at Internet pages featuring cacti.
Of course, this prompted the question every proud foodie asks when encountering the unknown -- can I eat it?
For southwesterners and those of Hispanic descent, cactus paddles -- or nopales to those in the know -- have been an integral part of their cuisines for centuries.
But here in the Northeast, cacti remain funny, hard-to-kill plants seen mostly in cartoons.
Only a handful of farmers in the U.S. cultivate edible cactus plants -- John Dicus, owner of Rivenrock Gardens in Nipomo, Calif., is one of them.
Dicus has been shipping organically grown cactus paddles around the country since about 1993, and every year sells about five tonnes of the paddles he grows in his central California community.
He initially grew salad greens, but became frustrated by how quickly they spoil, he said recently. Cactus paddles can remain on the plants much longer.
Though cactus cultivation is still limited in the United States, Dicus says southern Europeans and North Africans have been doing it for more than 400 years, ever since samples were brought back from the Americas.
"It's so common there now that the people there think it's natural to their lands," he said.
Much of Dicus's business comes from the Hispanic community, but he hopes cactus catches on more broadly. He expects that earning wider appeal will take a bit of positive public relations for the industry.
"It seems like an intimidating thing to look at in the store ... and it takes a little bit of learning to scrape those spines off with a knife, and you might mangle a few leaves before you get it down," he said.
Indeed. Several weeks before we spoke, I ordered 900 g of paddles from Dicus. When they arrived they were smooth and attractive. Seeing no spikes on them, I figured Dicus had been kind enough to defang them prior to shipping.
Without another thought, I used the paddles in the recipe for mushroom-cactus soup with roasted tomatillos that follows. It was thick, delicious and perfectly spicy. Unbeknownst to me, it was also full of thorns.
While speaking with Dicus, he asked whether I had trouble brushing the spikes off the paddles. Huh?
"Evidently it didn't hurt you," he said, laughing. "Generally we would recommend scrubbing them down with a little green scrubbing pad, and then you trim around them with a little pairing knife to get any little blotches off."
Cooking with cactus is easy. Very fresh paddles add a mild, lime-like flavour to dishes. Even out-of-season paddles are delicious, Dicus said, noting they taste like and can be used similarly to green beans.
The paddles, also called beaver tailed or prickly pear cactus, are great chopped raw in salads, diced and simmered in soups, or cut into thin strips and baked on pizza.
One of Dicus's favourite preparations is breakfast burritos. He adds finely diced cactus paddles to eggs. After the eggs are cooked, he wraps them in a flour tortilla and spoons on salsa.
Though there are many varieties of edible cactus, Dicus suggests starting with the flat nopales paddles which I purchased. He said the mild flavour and low spike count make them more approachable for first-timers.
This recipe is adapted from a variety of similar soups found on the Internet. This version simplifies preparation and reduces the number of potentially hard-to-get ingredients.
Mushrooms add flavor.
Mushroom-Cactus Soup with Roasted Tomatillos