If it’s April, it’s time to gather nopales here on the Sonoran Desert. Carolyn here today tempting you to read further with this photo of a delicious salsa made with nopalitos. (Definition of nopalito: a nopal, or cactus pad, cut into little pieces). At the bottom of the post, I’m going to give you the recipe and a video of how to turn a cactus pad into a yummy taco.
The many varieties of prickly pear put out their new growth when the spring warms up. All prickly pear pads are edible (meaning they not only won’t kill you but in this case are very nutritious), but they are only appropriate for food when they are new. After about six weeks, they develop a fibrous infrastructure. The easiest kind to prepare are the pads from the large Mexican variety of prickly pear that do not grow wild this far north. They are called Ficus indica or sometimes Burbank because Luther Burbank did some breeding work on them. The wild cactus pads are also delicious, but harder to prepare because of the abundance of spines. You can do a rough estimate of when a pad is ready to pick if it is about the size of your hand. The nopales available in Mexican grocery stores are grown by farmers who know how to manipulate the plant to keep fresh pads coming year ’round.
To prepare the nopales, you’ll use tongs, of course, and then don rubber kitchen gloves to protect your hands as you get rid of the stickers. You don’t need industrial strength gloves, just good quality ones from the grocery store will do. Using a common steak knife, scrape vigorously against the growth (from outer edge to stem) to remove the stickers.
The edge has lots of stickers so just trim it off.
At this point, you can cut it into small pieces to cook or leave it whole and cut it up later. You can cook them in a frying pan filmed with oil, or use the Rick Bayless method (he of TV show fame) and toss them with a little oil, sprinkle with sale, put on a cookie sheet and roast in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes. In any case, you should check them and turn them over as they cook.
The nopales will turn from bright green to a more olive color as they cook. The gummy sap that some people find objectionable will dry up and become less noticeable.
You can also cook nopales on the barbecue alongside some chicken to make a delicious taco. This video ( find it at the bottom of the magazine article) shows you how to clean the nopal and grill it. Take a look here.
Here’s the recipe for the sauce in the picture at the top of the blog:
Grilled Chicken with Nopalito and Pineapple Salsa
(Makes 4 servings)
This is good to serve as a light entrée with rice and a vegetable. It is also great as a stuffing for fresh flour tortillas topped with shredded lettuce.
1 raw, cleaned prickly pear pad
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup canned crushed pineapple packed in it’s own juice
¼ cup finely chopped red bell pepper
¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, including some tops
1 tablespoons canned green chiles
1 finely minced serrano chile (optional)
½ teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro (optional)
4 large boneless chicken breasts
Cut prickly pear pad in 1 ½ inch squares. Film a heavy frying pan with the oil and add the prickly pear pads. Cook over low heat, turning occasionally, until pieces have given up much of their juice and are slightly brown. Remove from pan, cool, and chop into pieces as wide as a matchstick and about ¼-inch long.
Transfer to medium bowl. Add remaining ingredients, stir to combine and set aside for flavors to mingle.
Grill chicken breasts until done. Slice each one crosswise into five or six pieces and arrange each on a plate. Put a portion of the salsa on top of or beside the chicken.
Want more recipes for the bountiful crop of nopales we’ll have this year? Check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest. You can flip through The Prickly Pear Cookbook here. Both books are available locally at Native Seeds/SEARCH on Campbell or from on-line booksellers.