“I’ve got something for you,” my mom casually mentioned to me one night as we were chatting on the phone. “I got you a few cactus paddles that you can plant in your garden. I’ll give them to you next time you come to visit. They’re in the garage.” My visit to my mom’s came and went, yet those nopales remained in the garage for over a year. I’ll tell you what. No food, no water, winter elements, and yet they did not die. In fact, they are slowly growing in a pot in my back yard at this very moment. These little cacti are simply amazing.
Nopales have boasted health benefits ranging from helping diabetes to decreasing inflammation to lowering cholesterol. Maybe the magic that is within that nopal that my mom gave me– the very same magic that kept it alive in her garage– is somehow bestowed upon those who eat it.
The one thing I know for sure is that nopales are darn tasty. They are similar in flavor and texture to okra, they even have that starchy stickiness. I have a hard time keeping my hands off of them once they’re cooked. I just love the flavor, texture, and the fact that they’re so nutritious.
And being a huge fan of Mexican culinary culture, I love that nopales are a traditional south-of-the-border ingredient. In fact, this entire salad is super traditional. Nopales, serrano, tomato, cilantro, lime juice, onion, and queso fresco– oh yeah, totally Mexican. It can be served up as a topping for tacos, with chips, as side– any way you fancy, really. It also works wonderfully with really heavy main dishes like carnitas and is perfect for the warmer months because it’s so fresh and light. Ahhh… my mouth is watering.
It feels good knowing that I have a bowl of tasty, satisfying nopal salad in the fridge and that I have future nopales growing in my back yard. I feel certain that after an apocalypse, I would be healthy and happy surviving on those wonderful cacti. I’m pretty sure they can endure anything.
Too little time? Try this hack! Cleaning nopales can, admittedly, can be a less-than-desirable task. Fortunately, many Mexican markets will cut the spines off for you. You still get a fresh nopal with much of the work done for you. Gotta love it!
But I can do ya one better. If you don’t happen to have a Mexican market nearby or no time for cooking nopales, try checking out your local big box grocery store for an already cooked version. You’ll usually find them in your handy, dandy Mexican aisle. They’re packed in large jars marinating in a delicious liquid. I’m a big fan of these because I’m sometimes lazy and the brand I like marinates the nopales in a mixture of chiles, onions, and cilantro. The extra flavor and the saved time is a win-win for me.
What do you think? Are nopales the food of gods? What would you serve this salad with? Fill us in! We’d love to hear from you. Until next time!
- 8 small nopales cactus paddles
- 2 roma tomatoes, large diced
- 1 small onion, sliced
- 2 serrano chiles, seeds removed and minced
- ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 1 teaspoon lime zest
- 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 4 ounces queso fresco, crumbled
- salt to taste
- Place a large pot of water along with 1 teaspoon of salt over high heat and bring to a boil.
- While the water is coming to a boil, clean the nopales. To do this, hold the end of a cactus paddle with a kitchen towel. Using a large sharp knife, hold it parallel to the nopal and carefully cut the spines off. Flip and repeat on the other side. Trim ½-inch from the outer edge and end of the nopal. Cut into ½-inch strips, then cut the strips into 2-inch segments. Repeat with the other cactus paddles.
- Place the nopal strips in the boiling water and simmer until they become tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and run under cold water until the nopales are chilled. Drain thoroughly.
- Place the cooked and rinsed nopales in a medium bowl with the tomato, onion, serrano, cilantro leaves, lime zest, lime juice, and salt to taste. Toss to combine, then sprinkle with the crumbled queso fresco. Enjoy immediately or store in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic container. The salad is best when it’s had some time to marinate before serving.