May 29, 2020

Cactus Paddle Habit

Living in oh-so-humid Florida, I hadn't thought of my yard as a suitable place to grow cactus. They grow in the desert, right? My narrow mindset was challenged one day at the beach as I wandered barefoot in a dune area. After accidently stepping on a baby cactus, I became hyper-perceptive to all the small cacti underfoot. If these cacti weren't native, they were certainly quite at home in coastal Florida. I also had a vague notion that expanses of cactus were good forage for cattle. Even if cactus grew well here, I wasn't disposed toward planting edibles for ruminants.

All that changed, when I was gifted a couple of cactus paddles. I was told that this particular variety was spineless and almost glochid-free. That sat well with me. Glochids are the invisible, hair-like, barbed spines that can lodge in the unsuspecting handler. In case I needed to weed around the base of the plant, I'd rather not be attacked by lurking spines. My benefactor assured me that the leaves were edible. This particular variety was also easy to prepare, since I wouldn't have to burn or cut any spines off, just give each surface a solid rubdown.

I put the gifted paddle in the ground, butt-side down. I may have watered it once or twice. It took root and grew slowly at first. A year or two later, feeling a bit guilty that I had not eaten any; I picked some, taking it out for an inaugural spin on my dinner plate. I read that in Mexico, they grill cactus paddle, also called nopales there. I brushed some oil on a medium-sized paddle, threw it on the griddle, turned it over, grilled it some more, and sprinkled it with salt. It tasted a bit like green beans, but with a citrus spark. Not bad.

With no maintenance whatsoever, the plant kept on growing. With a seemingly never-ending source of cactus, I was determined to find further culinary uses. As a big-time salad eater, I suspected that it would work well in a salad. When raw, the paddles are mucilaginous, fairly bland, and crunchy. Cut into large pieces, I didn't care for them. But cut into smaller pieces, the thinner, younger paddles add a fun texture. The thicker, older paddles start to get a little fibrous; so texture-wise, they are a great substitute for celery in a salad. Celery is hard to grow in Florida, due to its consistent need for cooler temps and lots and lots of water.

Although I continue to enjoy cactus in salads, my favorite use is cooked with an egg. I can add some chopped paddles to an omelet. They go together beautifully. I also enjoy the reverse, where I add a thin layer of egg to some fried chopped paddles. Before adding the egg, fry the chopped paddles in garlic, onion, turmeric, rosemary, salt, red pepper, or whatever you might have in the garden or in your kitchen. As the eggs cook, add some cheese, if you are so inclined.

Cactus has now settled comfortably into my diet. As it turns out, it's healthy as well. The U.S Department of Agriculture has assembled a nifty webpage to look up the nutrients of various foods. Most of the uncommon foods I grow are not there. Many thanks to the USDA for adding cactus a couple of months ago. It's high in fiber and antioxidants. I predict that when nutrition experts add slime to the list of nutrients they measure, cactus paddles will be considered a superfood. Until then, online it is reputed to help with type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and hangovers, but without much research to back it up.

My sweetheart took notice of this new food in our diet and started experimenting on his own. He has perfected a breakfast preparation of cheesy grits chock full of cactus paddle. I have also successfully used young cactus paddles to thicken up a smoothie. Some people juice it, but I have never tried that. If you decide to boil the cactus, in a soup or stew for example, there is a trick to getting rid of the mucilaginous quality you may encounter. Just as you have cooked the cactus sufficiently, add a pinch of baking soda. It will fizz up and the sliminess will be gone. Do note that if you add too much baking soda or you use too small a pot, it may froth up so much that the pot overflows.

  Rubbing the paddles to get rid of the glochids

Preparing cheesy grits with cactus paddle

Now, let's consider the rain. I live in Sarasota, where we have been under watering restrictions since the 1980s. That's Decades! Large swaths of the state are subject to wildfire during more extreme long-term drought conditions. The climate in coastal Sarasota has actually changed, since I was a teenager. It used to rain almost every day during the summer, or at least that's how I remember it. Today, in contrast, we still get downpours during the summer, but generally this happens when there is a storm coming through. We now experience longer droughts punctuated by intense rainstorms. When I ask myself what this means for the food I grow, I visualize brown, withered crops. In this regard, cactus is a champ. Once established, it needs no irrigation or nutrients. During a drought, the pads may contract a bit, but the plant will live on to grow another day. From this perspective, I am thrilled to have developed a cactus paddle habit.

I do have one regret. I did not keep the cactus plant thinned enough and it now resembles a one-plant forest. At one point, it was threatening the lanai frame that it had grown up against and we had to hack it down a bit. I have since started two new plants that I intend to keep rather small. I will see how well they produce, before cutting down the forest.

A single cactus plant flowering madly (Nopalea cochinellifera)

For my friends in colder regions:
Although the cactus I grow takes the heat in stride, you can find varieties that live through freezing winters. Cacti grow from Alaska down to southern South America. My guess is that cactus is a hardy plant, but each variety is hardy in its own way. They all seem to be drought-tolerant, so they are great to grow if you live in a part of the world that faces lengthening droughts as part of climate chaos. Check that the specific variety you intend to grow is edible.

This article is dedicated to John Starnes, garden benefactor of many; a rose whose bloom was lost too soon.

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