The cactus plant, Opuntia spp. , has two main culinary sources: nopales, or cactus pads, and prickly pears.
Nopales are cactus leaves, which are also known as pads, or paddles of the nopale, or prickly pear cactus. They are usually pale to dark green in color. They are oval in shape, and with sharp spines. The thorns on the nopale need to be removed. The easiest way to do it is to use a vegetable peeler. Nopales are best in the spring when they are small, but firm, and pale green with no wrinkling. They taste similar to a green bean with, with a slight acidic tang. Choose small leaves that are pale and thin.
Nopales are usually simmered in water until tender. Nopalitos are canned nopales that have been diced, or cut into strips. Acitrones are candied nopales that are packed in sugar syrup and available in cans or jars.