Nopales are the tear-shaped, hand-sized leaves or pads or “paddles” of the prickly pear cactus.
Nopalitos are nopales (pronounce no-PAH-les)–cactus spines removed–cut into bite-sized squares or strips.
- To make nopalitos en salsa verde, steam or boil nopalitos until tender crunchy then re-cook in a sauce of puréed tomatillos, onion, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeño chiles boiled and simmered. Wrap the mix in a tortilla or serve with chips.
- Nopalitos sautéed or steamed are a favorite served in omelets.
- Grill nopales brushed with olive oil until soft and slightly charred, about 10 to 12 minutes on each side, and serve as a side vegetable with grilled steak or chicken.
- Nopalitos cut into strips can be rolled in a flour or cornmeal batter and deep-fried like potatoes.
Nopales have the flavor and very subtle tartness of asparagus or green beans with a chewy texture. Young, thin pads are the most succulent and delicate flavored.
Nopales are popular in the cookery of the southwestern United States and Mexico, dating back to the time of the Aztec and Mayan peoples. The pads can be harvested with the slice of a knife from several species of the prickly pear cactus which range in size from low and sprawling to tree-like, more than 20 feet ( 6m) tall. The prickly pear is native to warm, dry regions of Mexico. Nopal means cactus in Spanish.
Besides nopales, the prickly pear fruit–which can be red or orange or an array of bright colors and is about the size of a large plum or pear–is also edible and often used in desserts.
Nopales can be covered with “eyes” and cactus spines and prickly hairs called glochids. These must be removed by hand or singed away with fire. Some cultivated varieties of nopales are spineless.
Season. The peak season for nopales is spring through late fall.
Choose. Select smallish nopales paddles that are no larger than hand-size, about 8 inches or less in length, and not too thick. Thicker paddles will have lost their sheen and be less tender and can be stringy. New, tender growth will be pale to medium green, crisp-firm, not dry, limp, soggy, or wrinkled. Cultivated nopales have a prickless pad
Store. Nopales are best used fresh in a few days. They can be kept nearly crisp for a few weeks in water in the refrigerator.
Prepare. The “eyes” and stickers of nopales must be removed before serving. Use a swivel peeler to remove the spines. You can also brush away the spines. Be sure to wear gloves. After the spines are removed, shave the rim of each pad and trim off any dry or fibrous areas and rinse thoroughly before serving or cooking. Keep as much of the nopale’s green skin as possible.
Cook and Serve. Nopales can be simmered, boiled, sautéed, deep fried, or grilled. They are best served with a tender crunchy texture. Over-cooked nopales will have a slimy texture.
To avoid the slippery texture, rinse cooked nopales and drain in a colander, cover with a damp towel to keep the pads from drying out, and let stand about 30 minutes before slicing or serving.
- Sauté nopalitos in butter or oil and serve.
- Grill until slightly browned, slice into strips and toss with a squeeze of lime and a little bit of olive oil.
- Dice and cook in an ungreased pan with chunks of onions, one or two cloves of garlic until no longer slippery, about 5 minutes, then rinse.
- Grill or boil, dice, and add to salsa or salads.
- Sauté with scrambled eggs, diced onion, chiles, and tomatoes.
- Sauté bite sized pieces in butter for about 5 minutes then add eggs and cheese to scramble.
- Cool for 15 to 20 minutes in boiling salted water; pour off the water and rinse in cold water; use in salads, stews, or as a vegetable.
- Boil, drain and wash with cold water; serve with finely diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and jalapeños, season with vinegar, salt and lime juice.
- Grill and serve with grilled Portobello mushrooms.
- Dice and sauté bits with chili pepper and sausage or grated cheese in tortillas.
- Cut boiled, cooled strips and combined in a salad of tomatoes, onion, oregano, cilantro, chilies, oil and vinegar.
- Stir squares into soups, about 10 minutes.
- Stir diced into chili or beans in last the 15 minutes.
- Slice the pad and sandwich to enclose cheese, then dip in a light egg-flour batter and deep fry.
- Steam, dice and add to scrambled eggs.
- Toss with tomato, onion and vinaigrette.
Flavor partners. Nopales have a flavor affinity for chiles, cilantro, corn, eggs, lemon, lime, onions, sweet bell peppers, tomato, tortillas, tropical fruits egg, cheese, onions, cilantro, scallions, oregano, and salsa.
Nutrition. Nopales are an excellent source of vitamin A and C, and also contain vitamin B and iron.
The botanical name for the prickly pear cactus and nopales is Opuntia fiscus-indica.