Since it's Cinco de Mayo I thought I'd try out a recipe from Puebla (where Cinco de Mayo is celebrated); I used the paddle cactus that grows in my yard instead of prickly pear and added some chili and cumin powder, but other than that it is pretty close to how nopales are cooked in Puebla Mexico. They are a bit of an aquired taste, but they are great for achieving that real authentic touch and they make a pretty good meal for desert camping, too.
Step 1: Ingredients
To stick with the authentic recipe you only need three ingredients: Cactus, cooking oil, lime juice, and salt.
If you would like to try my variation you only need to add cumin powder and chili powder.
If the produce section where you usually shop doesn't have cactus you can get it at most Hispanic groceries (this is also a great place to get chili powder and many other spices). Or you can find it wild if you live in a desert or semi-desert region of North America.
Step 2: Prepare the Cactus
If you were able to find cactus at the store then all you need to do to prepare it is wash it and cut slits in it(I'm not sure why, that's just how they always do it).
If you want to go the wild route then there is a bit more prep work involved. First, you need to find some; we have patches of cactus all over our yard so for me that was easy. It tends to grow near sagebrush so that's always a good place to start looking. I have read on several survival forums that all types of paddle cactus are edible, though there are varying degrees of how good they taste...
Once you've found it you need to pick some, which can be tricky if the variety you found has particularly long needles. I find that just giving it a good kick right at the base does a good job separating it and then you can carefully pick it up.
Now all you have to do is remove the needles; this is easier said than done but it's not too difficult. If you want you can just peel the whole thing with a sharp knife which is pretty quick and simple. But if you want to keep the skin on it the easiest way to remove the needles is to burn them off, then shave off the nubs with a vegetable peeler. I did all of this over a piece of cardboard for easy cleanup since the needles are quite nasty.
NOTE: Depending on the variety you have, the needles can range from just being sharp to being slightly poisonous (it can feel like a bee sting), so be careful. Also, there will often be very fine needles as well as the big obvious ones and if you to stick yourself it can feel like getting fiberglass slivers. If you do this a good way to get rid of them is to pull them out with duct tape.
Step 3: Fry It Up
Once you have your cactus cleaned and cut you can fry it in some cooking oil on medium to low heat for a few minutes on each side. It will change colors from a nice green to kind of gray. You can also cook it in butter, but it's still going to change color.
Remove it from the heat and squirt some lime juice and sprinkle some salt on it. That's how it's traditionally prepared and many people like it just like that, but I like to add a little spice with a sprinkle of chili and cumin. You can also chop it up and add it to salsa or guacamole, the sky is the limit.
And that's all there is to it; thanks for reading and enjoy!