I have a very special treat for you today, made with a very important staple in the Mexican diet, and a permanent fixture in my cocina...Nopales (cactus paddles). Yes, you read that correctly...cactus paddles. Not only are cactus paddles edible and delicious, but they're also very good for you. They are known to help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
When I was growing up, I wasn't a big fan of nopales. That's probably because the only kind of nopales available back then at the Mexican market were nopales in a jar. Something about the murky liquid they were packed in totally turned me off to even wanting to try nopales. It wasn't until I was in my late teens that we started to see fresh nopales showing up in the produce section of our friendly neighborhood grocery store. But still, even fresh nopales didn't appeal to me, because I couldn't get over the image of the jar of nopales with the murky liquid.
|Hubby picking nopales at el rancho.|
Moving to Mexico really opened my eyes to the joy of eating nopales. My suegra buys a 1 pound bag of nopales every day, either at el mercado (the market) or from one of a handful of vendors who walked through our neighborhood everyday with baskets full of freshly cut nopales tiernos (baby cactus paddles), which are the ideal kind to eat. (Not the big, thick cactus paddles.)
So, I got used to seeing fresh nopales on the table everyday, that in no way resembled the kind of nopales I remember from my childhood. Just a few weeks after we moved to Mexico, I tried my first taco de nopales (a couple of spoonfuls of cactus paddle salad wrapped in a warm corn tortilla). I don't know what I expected the nopales to taste like, but they were nothing like I imagined. They were cool and kind of tart and absolutely delicious. And I've been in love with nopales ever since. (My kiddies are crazy about them too.)
|Hubby teaching our boys how to clean cactus paddles .|
Cooked nopales are traditionally used in Ensalada de Nopales (Cactus Salad), but they can be added to any dish. Some of my favorites include Mole Ranchero with pork loin and Nopales, Chilito de Chicharron with Nopales and Scrambled Eggs with Nopales. But cooked nopales are so good, I find myself snacking on them straight from the pan.
- 1 pound nopales, cleaned and sliced or chopped
- 1 sprig of cilantro
- 1/4 medium onion
- 2 roma tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- Chopped cilantro
There are two ways to cook cactus paddles for Ensalada de Nopales. The traditional way of cooking nopales, which is how my suegra (mother-in-law) cooks them, is to boil the cactus paddles in water with cilantro and onion in a medium saucepan until soft. Then drain into a plastic strainer, and let set for about 15 minutes to allow all of the liquid from the nopales to drain completely.
But my preferred method is one I learned from one of my sisters-in-law, which really reduces the amount of "babas" (slimy-like liquid) that the nopales release. Place the sliced or chopped cactus paddles in a non-stick skillet with a sprig of cilantro and a couple pinches of salt, without any water at all. (NO WATER!)
Cover and simmer over low heat. Within minutes the nopales will start to release their own liquid, which is plenty enough to completely cook the nopales.
Continue to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the cactus paddles are completely cooked with very little to no "babas" whatsoever.
And now for the ensalada....Gently mix together the cactus, chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro. Season lightly with salt. Serve as a side dish or as a topping for tacos and/or tostadas. Enjoy!!!
*You could also add a couple of spoonfuls of Ensalada de Nopales to your scrambled eggs for Huevos con Nopales.