I was shopping in an ethnic grocery store when I saw a huge pile of fresh Prickly Pear cactus pads in the produce section. Prickly Pear cactus is thought to be native to Mexico and is eaten as a vegetable.
The cactus is called “nopal” in Spanish, and the pads or stems are called “nopales.” Mexico exports 40,000 pounds of nopales pads to Texas every day. They’re also grown as an export crop in Central America and Israel.
The pear-shaped fruit on the ends of the nopal pads are called “tunas,” and range in color from a greenish-white to purple. If the tuna fruit are sweet, they’re eaten raw or used to make wine or as a sweet syrup. If sour, they’re cooked and incorporated into a variety of recipes.
I’ve always wondered about the first adventurous cook to take this prickly crop and turn it into a delightful dish! Preparing the fresh cactus pads takes time and care, as all of the prickly spines and thorns must be carefully removed. After the pads have been prepped, they’re grilled or boiled until tender. When sliced thinly, the nopales are called “nopalitos.”
They look like French-cut green beans and have a similar texture. You can buy nopalitos in a can or jar, and both the fresh nopales and the canned variety are widely available in ethnic supermarkets. I prefer the ease and convenience of using the canned nopalitos because it’s difficult to prepare them properly the first few times. Be sure to rinse the canned nopales well before using them. Nopalitos are a popular ingredient in Mexican dishes. They’re scrambled with eggs and served during the Mexican celebration of Lent, used as a taco filling, as a vegetable in soups, or breaded and eaten like French fries.
I used breaded nopalitos as a crunchy topping for this unusual Fried Cactus Salad. Enjoy this taste of Mexico, and try nopalitos in your recipes to give your dinner a South-of-the-Border flair!
FRIED CACTUS SALAD
1 cup fresh nopalitos, rinsed, drained and patted dry
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon chili powder
1½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup vegetable oil
1. To make the fried cactus, place flour, cornmeal, 1 teaspoon salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper in a small bag. Shake the bag to mix the ingredients. Drop the rinsed and drained nopalitos into the bag. Shake until the strips are well-coated.
2. Heat oil in a medium-sized skillet, about 2 to 3 minutes. Fry the strips until they are golden brown. Place strips on a paper towel to drain, sprinkle with the remaining salt, and set aside.
Salad: 3 tablespoons chopped white or sweet onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or 2 teaspoons fresh
Romaine Lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup prepared Italian Dressing Topping
3 tomatoes, sliced
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup crumbled queso fresco or anejo or Monterey jack cheese
1/3 cup purple onion rings
1 avocado, peeled and sliced (optional)
Place the onion, cilantro, oregano and lettuce into a large bowl. Drizzle with the salad dressing. Toss to combine. Top with the tomato slices, cilantro, cheese, onion rings and avocado. Sprinkle the fried nopalitos over and around the salad. Makes about 4 servings.