This salad made from tender young cactus is a favorite in South Texas during Lent.  Nopales are also commonly cooked with scrambled eggs, and added to breakfast tacos.  They are one of the most important native plants in our diet here.  Some people say they taste like a tart green bean, but I think they are much more similar to okra.

I have a cactus next to my front porch that grows so fast it is a bit of a nuisance.  I should be eating this every day if I was trying to keep up with the growth. Make sure to pick the young bright green pads, not the larger thick ones. Use a big fork or skewer to catch them, while cutting them off the plant.  Do not touch them with your hands.  Take them on the fork to a cutting board in your sink. Trim the edges, then scrape all the large spines off (which actually contain many tiny invisible spines).  Rinse.

You can buy a bag of cleaned and chopped nopales in the produce section here, but what is more fun than foraging in the yard? Of course, if you don’t live where cactus grows, you might find a jar in the ethnic foods aisle.  But if you use the jar, rinse them off, as they tend to be very vinegary.

Some people boil their nopales, but I think, as with any cooked green, all the nutrients end up in the water that is tossed out.  I usually saute the cactus in a frying pan.  Today I grilled the pads on my cast iron grille pan, and it worked pretty nicely, except for the smoke.  Next time I will do it outside.

Like okra, nopales have slime.  Only nopales are slimy when raw and chopped, whereas okra has to cook for a bit before it oozes.  Cooking the cactus gets rid of some of the slime, but not all.

This is a simple salad you could add all sorts of things to. It is best served chilled, as a side dish.

Ensalada de Nopalitos

2 cups (about 6-8 pads) young tender cactus

1/4 onion, chopped fine

1/2 tomato, diced

1 tsp dried Mexican Oregano

4 tsp white vinegar or lime juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 chopped jalapeno (fresh or pickled, depending on how spicy you want it)

fresh cilantro and salt to taste

2/3 cup queso fresco, crumbled

Clean the nopales by trimming the edges and then removing all the spines with a sharp knife.  Brush with oil and grill, turning occasionally until the cactus changes from bright green to olive-green.  Let them cool, and then Julienne them.

Mix all ingredients together, chill before serving.