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After moving to the U.S., I forgot that nopales existed until one day, I ventured into a small grocery store called "La Michoacana." That's where I rediscovered nopales; now that spring is here and the days are getting hotter, I realized that salad was an excellent option for a side dish if I was trying to cook something Mexican and yummy.
As I began reading up on the health benefits of nopales, I remembered that my dad makes an excellent smoothie with nopales, perfect if you're dieting or need to add more fiber to your diet.
Before I share with you some fantastic recipes, let me explain what they taste and look like. If you see a nopal pad, it can look intimidating with all those thorns, and you might also be wondering, what is that reddish thing on top of the nopal?
Nopales grow with fruit on top of each nopal pad called tuna or prickly pear. Tunas are sweet and can be green or reddish pink. At the same time, the nopal is green and moist on the inside, with a tart, crunchy, viscous texture before cooking; after cooking, it's more of a green bean taste and consistency. Nopales or cacti are succulent plants that are versatile and used in various Mexican dishes.
All species of cacti are primarily native to North and South America; because these plants are predominantly located in semi-arid and dry parts, they retain much water; as for the thorns, think of them as the plant's way of protecting themselves, and for the tunas, they have tiny hair-like thorns on top of thick skin, so some careful preparation is needed to enjoy nopales and tunas. I love the versatility of tuna fruit; you can use it for cocktails, juices, aguas frescas, or just the fruit by itself, but that is a story for another day!
What I love about nopalitos is that they can be enjoyed as a side dish, salad, or even as a main dish that's low on calories and a great source of fiber.
Now, let's get into how to prepare the nopales:
There are a couple ways to cook nopales: boil, grill, or cook them in a pan with oil. For the purposes of this blog, we are using the third method. Let's begin!
First, rinse the cactus pad under cold water, and be careful not to prick your fingers with the thorns! Lay it flat on a cutting board, and then using a peeler or sharp knife, peel the thorns and dark bumps (where the thorn grows). Try to save as much of the dark green skin, though! Then you will trim approximately 1/4 inches around the pad and 1/2 inch of the thick base, making it easier to cut the nopal into thin slices or dice, or you may want the whole pad- depending on what your dish will be.
For basic cooking of nopales:
You will need about 2 tablespoons of cooking oil (whichever you prefer).
I usually use avocado oil because of its high smoke point; make sure you have a pan or skillet with a lid because we will use it to sweat the nopales.
Heat up your pan first, add your oil over medium-high heat, and then add your sliced or diced nopales. Add some salt, stir, and cook for 2 minutes before putting on the lid. Reduce to medium heat and let the nopales sweat for 20 minutes or until you see the nopales exuding a gelatinous liquid that will dry out as you keep sweating the nopales. You can remove the lid from the pan once the liquid has dried. Let the nopales cool before using them, and then you can use them in various dishes!
Before jumping over to the recipes, the grocery stores I go to sell clean and sliced nopales, saving me a ton of time! If you have a Latin supermarket near you, you can find the nopales, hopefully already clean and cut.
Now to the recipes!
1 Chopped Tomato
1 Small Chopped White Onion, or Purple
2 Cups of Chopped Nopales
1/4 Cups of Finely Chopped Cilantro
2 Tbsp. of Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. of Lime Juice - Freshly Squeezed
1 Tbsp. of Dried Oregano
1/2 Tsp. of Kosher Salt
Crumbled Queso Fresco or Panela for Garnish
1 Sliced Avocado for Garnish
1- Drain the chopped or sliced nopales and rinse; if you're chopping the nopales, make sure you cut them into the same size as the onion and the tomato.
2- Toss the tomato, onion, nopales, and cilantro into a bowl.
3- Pour the olive oil, lime juice, oregano, and salt using a small container with a lid and shake vigorously.
4- Pour dressing over the salad and make sure you toss well.
5- You can eat it right away but preferably cover it and refrigerate it for at least an hour so the flavors meld.
6- Serve and garnish with the cheese and avocado.
Dad's Mean Green Smoothie
2-3 Tbsp. of Chopped Nopales
16-20 Oz. of Orange Juice
2 Small Celery Sticks
4 Tbsp. of Frozen Pineapple
A Handful of Parsley
1 Cup of Ice
1- Add the nopales, celery sticks, frozen pineapple, and parsley to the blender.
2- Add the Orange Juice and the Ice to the blender.
3- Blend and serve. (If you are not a big fan of the consistency, which is all that fiber that is so good for your gut, you can strain it, but you won't get the same benefits).
Have you had nopales before? Would you try them? Let me know in the comments!