Nopales {Cactus} for Dinner; 3 Methods, 2 Recipes

~the daily tangent~

I started writing really bad poetry my freshman year in college, before I knew what a poem is. It began with an angry burst of consciousness boiling over onto the typepad. They were not poems so much as disjointed tangible images that ignored conventional punctuation and didn’t reach the end of the line.

I knew they weren’t stellar, but it was therapeutic. What’s more, my English professor at the time, Daniel Chacón, encouraged me to continue. “Keep writing, write about something real.” I was so appreciative I dedicated my second book of self-published “poems” to him. Of course I never told him that.

While in his class we read tantalizing bits of Octavio Paz, and Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation; An Argument with My Mexican Father – a book so richly edible I had to finish even in the midst of finals.

He taught me what it means to be a Chicano, and that semester I entered a MEChA essay contest of the same name. I won first place, and had to give a speech at the Cinco de Mayo celebration. I began with, “Yes, I’m know I’m just a white girl…”

Well, you may have noticed this white girl is not afraid of using ingredients outside her cultural norms. Nopales {cactus} are native to Mexico, and comfortable in south of the border cooking, but not so much in non-Hispanic suburban California homes.

Why is that? Surely it’s not those nubby little spines (which are soft until they mature). I blame fear of the new, but also, the internet. There is a noticeable shortage of cactus recipes and nutritional information on-line. This needs to be remedied for several reasons:

~for your health~
According to wiki, nopales are rich in soluble & non-soluble fiber, Vitamins A, C, K, riboflavin, B6, and minerals. It also notes the addition of nopales to a mixed meal reduces the glycemic effect, and may help in the treatment of diabetes.

~in good taste~
My first culinary experience of nopales came when a friend of mine’s mother made pork and cactus tacos. I was in high school, and had no idea you could eat cactus. It’s a little tangy, with a texture that’s a cross between green beans and bell pepper. It’s surprisingly good.

~in the spirit of local, sustainable, organic~
Cactus grows remarkably well in California’s semi-arid climate, but is adaptable to cooler climates as well. My gardening goal is for everything in my yard be edible, so I was pretty excited when our next-door neighbor offered us a grizzled-looking cactus pad last year. She told us to just stick it in the ground and it will grow. This fits perfectly with my light green thumb.  My husband dug a hole in the bed against the house, packed it in there, and it grew its first arm within a couple of months.

Earlier this summer, four purplish, spiky blooms emerged. I first thought, prickly pears! But they turned out to be more venturing arms. This is it, time to cook! But I was nervous, and procrastinated. The soft nubs began to form sharp stickers on the outer edges.  It was now or never!

Due to the lack of consistent, detailed cooking instructions, I have one word to describe my first nopales attempt-trepidatious. I had some beautiful cherry tomatoes, and an avocado from my CSA box. Sounded like salsa to me.

I remembered someone on Top Chef preparing cactus, and how tricky it was because it’s very slimy on the inside, similar to okra. To remedy this, every recipe I found said to boil it for widely varying lengths of time. I didn’t want flabby cactus {the way canned nopales are} so I decided to boil it whole for just three minutes. Salt is commonly used to extract liquid, so I went through multiple salting phases. It was still a little oozy when I added it to the salsa, but it tasted surprisingly fresh. The avocado and tomatoes camouflaged the extra moisture. We ate the entire bowl in one sitting.

The second time around went much better. I made a cactus “bruschetta”, and streamlined the boiling method:

To boil nopales:

1)   Remove stickers and nubs with a vegetable peeler. Trim the edges, {this is where spines mature first} and then the sides.

2)   Dice cactus, and put into salted, boiling water for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, and let steep 3 more minutes. Drain, lightly salt, then leave it in the colander to continue draining while you prepare the rest of your components.

After my first two bonsai-tastic attempts, I finally sat down and looked at two of my cookbooks that actually had nopales recipes:

Cocina de la Familia – given to me by the same friend whose mother prepared my first nopales. He declared it an authentic Mexican cookbook, and it is. It is so tradicional that the one nopales recipe says only to, “boil in small pieces.”

Mexico One Plate at a Time – Rick Bayless, my anthropological culinary hero {I minored in anthropology} says to use dry heat; grill, roast, or cook them on a griddle. I should have looked at this cookbook first, and will try one of his techniques next. Here are his instructions for roasting and grilling:

To roast nopales:

1)   Remove stickers and nubs with a vegetable peeler. Trim the edges, {this is where spines mature first} and then the sides.

2)   Cut into ¾” squares, toss with a little olive oil and salt.

3)   Bake on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes at 375 till all the liquid has evaporated and they are tender.

To grill nopales:

1)   Remove stickers and nubs with a vegetable peeler. Trim the edges, {this is where spines mature first} and then the sides.

2)   Clean, and leave whole. Brush or spray both sides with oil.

3)   Lay them directly on the grill grate and cover, about 5 minutes a side until browned in places, dark olive green in others, and limp looking when you pick them up with tongs.

4)   Cool completely on a wire rack before dicing and seasoning.

My recipes:

Cactus Salsa

Ingredients:
4 nopales {young cactus pads}
1 avocado, pitted, diced, then scooped out of the peel
½ small basket cherry tomatoes, quartered and most of the gooey seeds squished out
juice of 1 lime
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ jalapeno, minced
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped fine

Directions:

1)   Prepare nopales using one of the above methods.

2)   Prepare the rest of the veggies and put in a nice bowl.

3)   Add cactus. Salt & lime to taste.

4)   Scoop it up with tortilla chips, serve over tacos, or salt & peppered pork chops pan-cooked in a little olive oil.

Cactus Bruschetta    

Ingredients:
1-2 nopales (young cactus pads)
1 small basket cherry tomatoes, quartered and most of the gooey tomato seeds squished out
1 small bunch fresh basil, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tablespoons good olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Salt & pepper

Directions:

1)   Prepare nopales using one of the above methods.

2)   Prepare the rest of the veggies and put in a nice bowl.

3)   Add cactus. Salt, pepper, & vinegar to taste.

4)   Serve on toasted, crusty bread, over roast chicken, or salt & peppered pork chops pan-cooked in a little olive oil.

This is dedicated to Prof. Daniel Chacón. Thank you for being a true teacher.

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17 Comments

Filed under Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

17 responses to “Nopales {Cactus} for Dinner; 3 Methods, 2 Recipes

  1. northernnarratives

    Great photos and the food looks so delicious! Judy

  2. Great shots – I may have to think about this before trying though

  3. Love the detail of this post. I’ve never eaten cactus. Interesting. Love the photos too.

  4. love the photos. hmm never heard of eating cactus, how is the taste? hehehe
    http://lifesmoe.wordpress.com/
    http://www.mouthwateringfoods.blogspot.com/

  5. eating cactus is definitely a novel idea. who knew?
    my favourite image here is the one of tomatoes lined up with the painter’s palette. too cool.
    thanks for sharing!

  6. Looks tasty,I think I tried some cactus in Morocco.

  7. Looks delicious – I’ve never eaten cactus – perhaps this is an excuse for me to taste cactus.

  8. Thanks for the new nopales recipes. Will you be adding a nopales candy recipe in the future?

  9. Wonderful post! The salsa looks delicious and I will try it. We have a new Mexican grocer in town and they sell nopales already “cleaned” of the spines/thorns. My Mom fooled me into eating them when I was young by telling me they were green beans.

  10. Pingback: Cheater Tlacoyos with Nopales (Cactus) | the taste space

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