Yes to Nopales (Prickly Pear Cactus)
This recipe for nopales (prickly pear cactus) comes from the Tarahumara indigenous culinary tradition, which the Midwestern Gentleman and I have been exploring lately. You can find this and other recipes from Daphne Miller’s The Jungle Effect here. At first, removing the spines from the cactus paddles seemed pretty daunting. However, once I got the hang of it, removing the spines was easy enough, just time-consuming. If I ever get the opportunity to purchase nopales already-despined and chopped, I probably will. However, this is Iowa, so I felt lucky to find them at all. (By the way, two prickly pear cactus paddles cost me about 45 cents at a Mexican grocery store, and this side dish lasted us for two meals.)
I’ve had nopales at restaurants in Texas, so I knew going in that I would probably like this dish. The Midwestern Gentleman, however, was pleasantly surprised by the nopales’ tangy flavor and crisp-tender texture. The long-suffering Gent eats a lot of unusual dishes at our dinner table, ever at the mercy of my adventure-seeking tastebuds, so I’m always really glad when he genuinely enjoys something new. The chile, lime, and cilantro flavors really sparkle in this dish, so if those are flavors you like, then you’ll probably enjoy this recipe. We ate the nopales along with stewed black beans, salsa, and crumbled queso fresco in homemade corn tortillas — a delicious combination of flavors and textures. The only change I would make to this recipe as written is to cut the nopales strips crosswise into smaller, more bite-sized pieces.
Sauteed Nopal Cactus
(recipe from The Jungle Effect)
3 nopal cactus paddles, spines removed (about 2 cups chopped)
1 Tbsp lard or olive oil
1/2 cup chopped white onion
3 to 4 ripe plum tomatoes, diced (1 1/2 cups)
1 fresh serrano chile or 1/2 jalapeno chile, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup chopped, fresh cilantro
1 lime cut into wedges
Clean paddles by cutting away the edge that outlines the paddle; this includes the blunt end where it was attached to the plant. Scrape off any spines that remain and use the tip of your knife to dig out any that are embedded.
Rinse paddles under cold running water. Stack up the cleaned paddles and slice them crosswise into 1⁄2-inch strips. Place the strips in a pot of cold water, cover and bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10–15 minutes until crisp-tender.
Rinse well under cold running water and drain thoroughly. Heat lard or oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, 2–5 minutes. Add cactus strips, tomatoes, and chiles. Stir until hot, 2–3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add the cilantro, toss, and serve with a wedge of lime. Use as a filling in warm corn tortillas.