I’m seriously craving some nopalitos today. Known in English as prickly pear cactus, nopales are a versatile vegetable very popular in Mexico. A good source of fiber, vitamin A, C, and other nutrients, and with only 22 calories per cup (cooked), nopales are a healthy, filling, and delicious food! Quite often you can find ’em in your own backyard, if you live in the Southwestern United States.
Everyone else – you’ll have to do a little searching. Sometimes stores like Whole Foods carry the cactus “paddles.” I haven’t had any luck finding them in good condition in my area (Washington, DC) however. They’re always limp and dull-colored, where they should be bright green and crisp. You might be better off buying them canned or jarred, or getting them delivered. I know MexGrocer sells jarred nopales online. I prefer them fresh. I’m spoiled. My mom has a ton of nopales in her backyard in Austin, Texas. Every few weeks, my grandpa goes out there with a big bowl, puts on his gardening gloves, and breaks off all the best looking paddles.
If you buy the cactus paddles at the supermarket, it’s likely that the spines will have already been removed. If not, no problem. Don’t be scared… just put on some gloves! About the size of your hand, each paddle only takes a minute or so to clean up, using a knife. The spines shave off easily, but sometimes little nodes are left, which can be removed with the same knife or a potato peeler. Then each paddle must be washed thoroughly. Dice the nopales up or cut into slices. I prefer them diced, as they combine better with whatever food you’re mixing them with.
Nopales can be eaten raw (I never have), boiled, or grilled. To boil them, place the nopales in a big pot and fill with cold water, just to cover. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes or so. You can add a few garlic cloves to the water, just for a little flavor, and a dash of salt. Nopales get sticky when cooked. This slimy liquid is called “babas,” or drool. LOL. Drain well to remove all the babas, then let the nopales cool and dry. At this point, my mom usually freezes most of it in big Ziploc bags, to be used at a later date.
You can add diced nopalitos to salads and soups, but I like them as a side, sauteed with onions, tomatoes, and jalapeños in a little olive oil, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and some fresh cilantro. They also work well with eggs! Nopalitos con huevo is one of my favorite breakfast dishes. Just scramble eggs into the mixture I previously mentioned and spoon into warm tortillas. These photos show a quick breakfast of nopalito-and-egg tacos seasoned only with salt and a dash of dried red pepper, letting the cactus shine through!
What do nopalitos taste like? It’s hard to describe. Subtly bitter, with a firm texture, the closest veggie I can think of would be a green bean, but BETTER.
By the way, the fruit from the cactus – the prickly pear itself – is SO good. It’s called “tuna” in Spanish, which can be a little confusing. Tuna fish is atún (in case you were wondering).
YOUR TURN: Have you ever had nopalitos? What did you think of them? What about tunas?