Using fresh cactus - Nopales
The paddles that grow on the prickly pear cactus are called nopales and taste somewhat like green beans when cooked. Nopales are very common and used extensively in Mexican cooking in salad, soups, omelets and as a filling for tacos and other snacks.
If you have the opportunity to gather nopales directly from a prickly pear cactus or purchase cactus with the thorns still on, you will need to remove them.
Cutting and removing thorns from cactus paddles:
Wear heavy protective gloves if cutting paddles from cactus plants. (Interesting note: true Mexicans grow their own pear cactuses in their backyards and do not see any need to wear gloves when cutting the nopales or when taking off the thorns, but this takes years of experience and thick-skinned hands...)
Cut young, small, thin paddles - they will be firm and have a better flavor.
To remove the thorns, lay the paddles on newspaper and continue to wear those gloves. Using a sharp knife, trim off the outside edge all around the paddles, then scrape the flat sides with the knife blade to shave off all the tiny thorns that grow off the small bumps on the surface of the cactus paddles. Just cut off the thorns, not the whole outer skin.
Cut off and discard the base of the paddle if not freshly cut off the cactus plant.
The nopales are now ready to be cut into strips or squares, called nopalitos, or used whole as your recipe instructs.
Roll up and discard the newspapers with the thorns and scraps inside.