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Cactus paddles, or nopales, are a beloved staple in Mexican cuisine.

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What Are Nopales?

Nopales are the edible pads of Opuntia ficus-indica, the prickly pear cactus. From the Nahuatl word nohpalli, nopales are a traditional side dish throughout Mexico that can be eaten raw or cooked. Nopales are featured in various Mexican recipes, where they are combined with tomatoes and cheese into a salad (ensalada de nopales), used as a taco filling or addition to salad tacos, or grilled and served with various accompaniments, from melty cheese to fresh salsa. Huevos con nopales, eggs with nopal, is a popular breakfast dish.

You can find fresh nopales in the produce section of Latin grocery stores or, depending on where you live, certain farmers’ markets. Prepared, diced nopal is sold in jars as “nopalitos.” Nopal is high in antioxidants and dietary fiber, rich in vitamin C and vitamin A, and contains minerals like manganese, calcium, and potassium.

3 Tips for Cooking Nopales

Nopales peak in the spring, when the young, sweet cactus paddles are most tender. Here’s what to know when sourcing and preparing nopales:

  1. Paddles should be crisp and firm. When shopping for nopales, look for firm, bright-green paddles about the size of your hand, rather than thick, tough, or limp ones, which have likely lost their tenderness and flavor.
  2. Use a sharp knife, and wear gloves when de-thorning. Some Mexican markets sell de-thorned nopales, but if yours have thorns, removing them is straightforward. Simply lay the paddle flat on a cutting board and run the knife’s edge in both directions until the surface is smooth. Wear thick gloves, or hold the paddle in place with a pair of kitchen tongs.
  3. Salt the nopal. Like okra, nopales are mucilaginous. Their liquid adds a pleasing texture to some dishes and can act as a loose binding agent, but it can also be drained off if a crisper texture—closer to cooked green beans—is preferred. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cactus with sea salt and set aside for 1 hour to draw excess moisture. Rinse the cactus under cold water in a colander to remove any sliminess, then cut the paddle into strips or dice.
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Ensalada de Nopales Recipe

Makes
2-4
Prep Time
15 min
Total Time
1 hr 15 min

Ingredients

  • 2–3 paddles nopales
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 4–5 radishes, diced
  • 1 small serrano pepper or jalapeno pepper, stems removed, small diced
  • ½ cup queso fresco, crumbled
  • Juice of 1 large lemon
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
  • Chopped fresh oregano, for serving
  • Tortillas or tostadas, for serving
  1. Lay the nopales flat on a cutting board, and trim away the edge with a sharp knife. Remove the thorns, and transfer to a large bowl. Salt, and let sit for 1 hour, then rinse and dice.
  2. Transfer the nopales to a large bowl with the tomatoes, radishes, peppers, and queso fresco. Add the lemon juice and olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and gently stir to combine. Taste, and adjust with a little more citrus or salt and pepper as needed. Top with chopped cilantro and oregano, and serve with warm tortillas or tostadas.

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