The vegetables known as nopales freeze well for use in a range of cooked dishes. Nopales, the paddle-shaped leaves of the prickly pear plant, are often likened to green beans and asparagus in terms of flavor. And like these more familiar vegetables, nopales boast a crisp texture that stands up well to freezing.
Whether you're cooking nopales immediately or preparing them for preservation, the spines will need to be separated from the edible pads. A scrubbing brush will remove most of the spines in nopale pads. Any stubborn ones, as well as imperfections and hairs, can be taken care of using a swivel peeler. Chop the pads into strips or cubes. These bite-size pieces are called nopalitos and are the best shapes for freezing.
You'll need to cook nopales only briefly before freezing. Boil 1 gallon of water for every 1 pound of chopped pads. Setting the nopale pieces in a metal basket small enough to fit inside your stockpot allows you to lift the vegetables in and out of the water quickly. Lower the basket into the boiling water and let the nopales cook for 1 minute, then remove the basket and plunge it into ice water, which will quickly stop the cooking process.
Make sure the chopped nopales are drained thoroughly before you freeze them. Freezer bags are a good way to store these compact vegetable pieces. Use one of the smaller-size freezer bag products, so that you can add 1 to 2 cups of chopped nopales to a meal without having to worry about using the remaining pieces. Leave about three inches between the food and the bag's seal so that the pieces have room to expand as they freeze, and so you can flatten the nopales for easier storage after sealing the bag.
For best results, use frozen nopales within 12 months of freezing them. Labeling bags or containers with the preparation date before they go into the freezer is invaluable for ensuring quality. Use frozen nopale pieces as you would similar frozen vegetables, such as green beans. Although fresh, lightly cooked nopales are better choices in dishes such as salsas and salads, frozen nopales are suitable for hearty cooked meals. Add them directly to longer-cooking recipes such as stews, chili and casseroles without thawing. Combined with sweet ingredients such as fruit and juice, frozen nopales add tang and the perfect slushy quality to smoothies and popsicles.
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