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Ensalada de Nopales

April 14, 2011

You might be wondering what these are doing on my kitchen counter. Southwestern decorations for a theme party? Deterrents against hungry neighborhood cats?

Hopefully you saw this coming, but I’m going to eat them.

First, I have to remove the spines. I find this easiest if you start at the top of the pad and slice against the grain. I consider it a victory if I only get pricked once or twice. This is not a time when it’s ok to miss a spot, so I usually give it a good rinse after removing the spines to search for any stowaways.

Nopales are pads from the prickly pear cactus. I imagine that choosing to eat this spiny succulent was born out of necessity, the meal of a desert denizen with very few culinary choices, but they are now a major crop of Mexico. In spite of a 2006 Cactus-moth scare, those of us that live in former-Mexico can find the fresh pads at farmer’s markets and trendier grocery stores, and pickled nopales are even more widely available.

The flavor is a little bit tart, and the texture is a lot like that of its succulent cousin, okra. Also like okra, it has a slimy juice that oozes out as it cooks.

My favorite way to cook nopales, and avoid the slime, is to lightly char them on a grill or under a broiler. The smoke brings out a nice earthy flavor, which lends itself well to quesadillas, tacos or even soups, but it does carry the danger of drying it out.

This roasting method from Rick Bayless produces a more tender and moist nopal, with a decidedly tangy flavor, better for a fresh tomato salad.

I usually gush about how great something smells when its cooking, but the fragrance just coming off of this cutting board was heavenly.

Ensalada de Nopales

Serves 8 at a salsa/accompaniment, 4 as a salad
From Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen

14 oz raw nopales/cactus paddles
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large, very ripe round tomato (I used 1 1/2 medium ones)
2-3 fresh serrano chiles, stemmed and finely chopped (Go easy if you can’t handle the heat.)
1 garlic clove, minced
3 Tablespoons cilantro, chopped
½ cup white onion, finely diced, rinsed in water and drained
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
salt to taste
2 Tablespoons finely crumbled queso añejo or dry feta
several radish slices for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Making every effort to avoid getting pricked, trim off the prickly edge around each cactus paddle and cut/scrape off the spines on each side.
2. Cut cactus paddles into ¾-inch pieces. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on a baking sheet and add the cactus pieces, stirring to coat. Sprinkle with salt and roast for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until cactus is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Let cool.
3. Mix together tomatoes, serranos, garlic, cilantro and onion. (This part can be done a  few hours ahead.)
4. Just before serving, mix together tomato salsa, cactus, lime juice and remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add salt to taste. Garnish with radish slices and cheese.

(It’s a little early for tomatoes, especially in colder climes. For a winter alternative, also from Bayless, combine nopalitos with red onion, cilantro, pickled jalapeños and lime juice.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 1:22 am

    Roasting really seems the best way to prepare Nopales. Thanks for the recipe.

  2. February 29, 2012 8:20 am

    looks great never cooked this before will find me some

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