With Spring upon us and all plants blooming around, so does one of Mexico’s most famous and ancestral plants: Nopal. The Nopal is a cactus plant that is highly valued in Mexico as people eat its younger pads as well as its fruit, tuna, that is sweet and delicious. Nopales are a traditional and ancestral Mexican food that is filled with nutrients and health benefits. Since Pre-Columbian times, nopales have been a part of the Mexican diet and up until this day are a staple of Mexican cuisine.
Photo by Andrew Coop on Unsplash
Nopales have a light, slightly tart, green bean-like flavor with a somewhat viscous texture. Nopales can be eaten grilled or boiled and are used in many Mexican dishes. To eat them, they are usually cut into strips, small pieces, or diced (which is when they are called nopalitos). In the grocery store one can find canned versions of nopales, but in Mexico, these are usually found and sold fresh. If you are having trouble finding fresh nopales and tunas/prickly pears where you live, make sure to check a local Mexican food store, Nopales are in season during spring, but there are several online stores that will have them delivered right to your door.
We wanted to share a delicious recipe for making nopalitos salad for those who are looking to serve an authentic Mexican meal and take advantage of the many health benefits of this plant.
General Tips and Prep:
1) cleaning Nopal:
Using fresh nopales in the kitchen can be an intimidating task, as they are found with thorns that need to be removed to prepare them. However, if one is careful cleaning them is an easy task and the reward of eating them is beyond itself! To clean nopales you will need a cutting board and knife.
To peel place flat on a cutting board and, using a towel for protection or holding from a place without spines, start by slicing off a thin rim at the edge of the nopal. Then, lay the nopal as flat as possible and sweep off all nodes and thorns with a knife. Note: you can use a vegetable peeler for flat nopales but they usually come curved and using a vegetable peeler can risk peeling off the inside of the nopal, which is very tender. Flip it over and repeat.
After getting rid of all spines, pat with a paper towel. Do not rinse yet, as water activates the viscous texture of the nopal.
Here you can dice them if you will make a nopalitos salad, or leave them whole if you will grill them for a recipe of your own.
2) Removing viscosity in the nopal
Nopales are known for its viscous, or slimy, texture which is what causes some people to dislike them. However, there is a way to get rid of this.
Start by boiling water with coarse salt until it boils. Once it reaches this point, add nopales in the water and let them boil for 5 minutes (not more). Remove the nopales from the water an immediately place them in cold water, you can even throw a few ice cubes to make it colder.
Nopalitos Salad Recipe
6 nopales pads, clean (no thorns), diced, and with viscosity removed.
1 peeled garlic
1 bunch of coarse salt
½ onion, diced in small cubes
2 tomatoes, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
¼ cups olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
2 tbs red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1 chile serrano, without seeds and very finely chopped (if desired)
After having removed viscosity of nopales (boiling them for only 5 minutes and rinse in cold water), fill another pot with water and add coarse salt, ½ onion and one peeled garlic. Bring to a boil, add diced nopales and simmer for about 10-15 minutes, or until tender. Remove nopales from boiling water and let cool. Discard boiled water, including onion and garlic.
In a bowl, add diced nopales together with diced onion, tomatoes, cilantro and chiles (this is only if you want to give it a spice, but it is not necessary as serrano is one of the spiciest chiles). Add salt and pepper to taste. Add olive oil and mix. Let rest for about 5 minutes so that the oil is absorbed by all ingredients. Add vinegar and mix, waiting another 2-5 minutes so that it sets. Lastly, add lime juice and mix again. Your salad is now ready to be served.
You can add cheese to this salad by simply cutting it into pieces, feta, panela, and queso fresco all pair excellent with this salad. Also, feel free to garnish this salad with cilantro springs.
Nopalitos salad can be served as a side dish, as a salad, or used as topping for tostadas or filling for tacos. Learning to make this basic salad will bring you a step closer to understanding how nopales are cooked and will help you get closer to other recipes with nopal.
Have you ever had nopales before? Let us know your thoughts on these. If you try this recipe, feel free to let us know how it turns out in the comments below and tag us in Facebook and Instagram!
Thinking of ways to present this at the table? You can check out our Kitchen and Entertaining products here. And here are some ideas of serving dishes we have:
Molcajete-Shaped Clay Salsa Bowl and Matching Spoon
Volcanic Stone 4 Piece Serving Tray - Round
7 Piece Jaguar Entertaining Serving Set with Parota Tray
Woven Aluminum Bowl with Removable Base
Regina from Lolo
Thank you for your comment and for pointing out that confusing set of instructions on our end. We’ve modified the recipe so hopefully is less confusing now :)
To answer your questions:
1-Dice the nopales after removing their spines, before boiling them. That way, they are easier to handle and will come out ready to be tossed in the salad bowl and mixed with all ingredients.
2- The garlic and 1/2 onion that go in the boiling water are meant to add flavor to the nopales while they are boiling and to absorb some of the slime. You can discard (or compost) them with the water you used to boil the nopales.
Hope this helps. Please let us know how your salad turns out, we’re so excited about this!
I’m a bit unclear with the nopales recipe- when do I chop them? Is it after I boiled them to remove the viscosity or after they’re boiled with the onion & garlic? Also do I toss out the onion & garlic I boiled or do I add those to the salad as well? There is no mention of them after the boil.