How to Cook Nopales

Barbara Rolek
Cut nopales

Nopales are the paddles found on the prickly pear cactus popular in Mexican and Southwestern American cuisine. Nopales, also called nopalitos, are an acquired taste because they can have a slimy texture akin to okra. But they find their way into innumerable dishes so the jury is still out on that one. They can be eaten raw or cooked.

How to Clean Nopales

First and foremost, wear gloves when handling fresh cactus paddles. The spines can cause some prickly situations and they must be removed.

  1. Use a small, sharp paring knife to scrape off the spines on both sides as if you were scaling fish.
  2. Cut off the stem end and then trim off the entire edge of the nopales where more spines reside.
  3. Rinse each de-spined cactus pad under running water.
  4. Leave them whole if grilling or slice the pad 1/4-inch wide lengthwise and then across in 1/4-inch-wide strips.

Now you are ready to use the nopales in whatever dish you prefer.

Popular Ways to Cook Nopales

Nopales can be eaten raw or cooked by boiling, grilling, and occasionally steaming. Add nopales to chorizo and serve with tortillas, scramble it with eggs for a great breakfast or light meal, serve it in tacos or mixed into salsa. The sky's the limit.

Boiling

This is a simple cactus preparation to be used as a side dish with meat, rice, or refried beans.

  1. After cleaning and slicing the nopales, place them in a saucepan with water to cover.
  2. Add 1 large bunch of unchopped cilantro (stems and all), 1/2 onion, 2 whole garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons white or apple cider vinegar (to tenderize the cactus).
  3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes.
  4. Drain the nopales and rinse under cold water to reduce the sliminess.
  5. Saute 1/2 cup chopped onion in 1 tablespoon oil and cracked red pepper to taste until the onion is translucent.
  6. Add the cactus and simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the cactus is heated through. Serve with rice and beans, meat and warm tortillas.

Grilling

If you decide to grill your nopales, after removing the spines, leave them whole.

  1. Green nopals in pan
    Warm a cast iron grill pan or heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium. Brush canola or vegetable oil on each side of the nopal.
  2. Place the nopalitos on the pan or grate and cook, turning occasionally, for about 8 minutes.
  3. Just before the cooking time is up, season both sides with salt and pepper. If desired, top with a slice of Chihuahua cheese and let it melt. Serve with fresh salsa and warm tortillas.

Steaming

You have to be careful with this one because oversteaming can cause the nopales to become mushy and unpalatable. Whole cleaned paddles can be placed in a steamer basket and steamed until tender, about 10 minutes.

Grilled Cactus Salad Recipe

This salad is made with grilled cactus, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and as much jalapeño as you dare. The grilled cactus must chill at least 4 hours before you proceed with the recipe so plan accordingly.

Cactus salad

Ingredients

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh nopales, trimmed and spines removed
  • 3/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 2 medium tomatoes cored, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 small red onion, cut into rings
  • 1 to 2 medium jalapeños, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
  • 1/2 cup sliced black olives
  • 2 bunches cilantro, leaves only, chopped
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 to 6 large lettuce leaves
  • Cracked black pepper to taste (optional)

Instructions

  1. Heat grill or broiler to medium-high.
  2. In a large bowl, place cleaned cactus paddles with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, coating each side.
  3. Grill or broil the paddles for 3 to 5 minutes or until grill marks appear on each side. Remove from grill and set aside to cool to room temperature.
  4. Place grilled and cooled cactus in a bowl or oblong container and chill, covered, 2 to 4 hours or overnight. When thoroughly chilled, cut cactus into 1/2-inch squares.
  5. To a large bowl, add diced cactus, tomatoes, onions, chiles, olives and cilantro with the remaining 1/2 cup oil, the vinegar, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. Toss well. Adjust the seasonins.
  6. Line 4 to 6 chilled salad plates with lettuce leaves. Divide the salad among the plates and dust with optional cracked black pepper.
  7. Serve with sliced avocados and a lemon wedge, if desired, along with warm tortillas.

No Excuses for Not Trying Nopales

Good quality canned nopales exist in diced, julienned, seasoned and unseasoned varieties so now you have no excuse for not wanting to try cactus. If you've never had cactus, you should try it at least once.

How to Cook Nopales