Ensalada de Nopalitos (Cactus Paddle Salad)
I’ll be honest. Nopales intimidated me. We certainly didn’t cook them in culinary school. We never made them when I was catering. My go-to with nopales (prickly pear cactus) has long been to grill them and eat them in a taco or put them with a molcajete. But cut up, cooked in a pot, I just never bothered because I’ve seen them come out babosos (lit. snotty). Yup, if you’re cooking these cactus paddles and don’t know what you’re doing, you can end up with a gross, gooey mess. But, fear not! Diana Kennedy set me right.
To get your hands on cactus paddles, aka nopales (no-PAUL-ace), you will likely need to head to your yard or to a grocery/market specializing in Mexican/Latin foods. If they only have the bottled variety, you can try them. But… usually they’re just salty. What you are looking for in this case are fresh, green, young cactus paddles. If you have an Indian Fig or pretty much any of the Opuntia cacti in your yard, they’ll work too. Picking them up at the store, they should be free of spines and ready for you to work with them. That said, you will still need to rinse them, just to be sure.
Once you have procured your paddles, they need to be sliced up. They can be relatively rough-cut squares, but keep them bite-sized.
Per Diana, you are going to cook the snot out of these cacti. With a little garlic and some scallions sweating in a heavy-bottomed pot, the cactus-pieces will exude their sticky moisture. After 15 minutes or so covered on low heat, off comes the top and they get cooked until there is no more cactus slobber.
Once they’re well cooked, the moisture will begin to leave the pot and as long as you take care to stir them from time to time, nothing should stick. It felt a little like magic to see the nopalitos suddenly start to resemble what I’ve eaten but never prepared.
After chilling for about 30 minutes, the salad just needed to be constructed, adding a bed of lettuce, tossing the cactus pieces with onion and lime juice, and topping with tomato, red onion, radish and some pickled jalapeno pepper slices.
- 3 cups cooked nopales, 1 inch or smaller squares
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
- 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1/2 tsp dry oregano (use the Mexican kind, not Italian!)
- 2 tbsp fresh squeezed lime juice or a good bright vinegar
- salt to taste
- 3 roma/huaje tomatoes, diced or sliced
- 1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1/3 cup crumbly mexican cheese (fresco, añejo, cotija)
- 2-3 pickled jalapeños cut into long slices (think fat julienne)
- Marinade the cooked nopales with the onion, cilantro, oregano and lime juice or vinegar for 30 minutes. Salt to taste. Top with remaining ingredients as you see fit.
- Put more stuff on your salad. Avocado and radish fit in really well here.