Cooking with EL CHAVO!

How to cook Nopales! (aka Nopalitos)

Que Pasa Gente!
   Did you finally get bored of that Croissan'wich? Great! It wasn't very good for you anyways. I suggest you try some of the foods of your ancestors, you might find out the viejitos were right! In this installment we take a look at nopales, aka nopalitos, aka cactus paddles. It's the Mexican-est food there is, it even plays a role in calling out Mexicans that have turned their back on their heritage. There is a popular phrase "tiene el nopal en la frente" (he has the nopal on his forehead) which is used when some person of Mexican descent tries to deny their background, even though everyone else knows the truth; you're a commoner like the rest of us. I think I'm going to start using that phrase much more regularly, it needs to make a comeback.

Even if you don't care about it's Mexican-ness, you still might be interested in this recipe as Nopales are healthy, tasty, and cheap! They tend to remind me of cooked green beans, but more nopaley tasting. Plus you can amaze your friends with the fact that yes, you do know how to cook cactus! Besides, with the pending financial collapse we might all be forced to scrounge around in the deserts for stuff to eat and you'll have a leg up. Don't say I never did nothing for you! Enough with the wiri wiri, click ahead to get started.

I said it was cheap and I meant it: the arrow points to a recent purchase where .77 lbs adds up to only 25 cents! I think this was a sale but the average price for 4-5 paddles ranges near 50 cents these days, now that's a good deal. Hey, don't be reading the rest of my grocery bill, why you gotta be so nosy? Nah, just kidding, go ahead and look, I got nothing to hide. (I put those items on a separate bill, haha!)

Oh yeah, I should mention something about picking out your fresh nopales. As in much fruit and vegetables, it's usually better to go for the smaller sized paddles and stay away from the really large and thick ones, those should have been picked earlier and are not as tender. The most desirable ones are small, bright green, are stiffer (older nopales tend to get "floppy", give them a slight shake to see what I mean), and the spines still look dangerous and prickly, not like the example above where they've withered and turned a bit black. You can also gauge the nopales by the freshnesss of the cut at the base; if it's dry and wrinkly it was picked longer than you want it to be.

The hardest part of preparing nopales is getting rid of those pesky spines, but all you need is a knife and some patience. Cut off all the spines by slicing them off, as you see above, since you don't want to be eating those, no matter how tough you think you are. It's usually best to start from the base and work up but just get it done. It's also easier to just trim off the edges rather than try to get them off individually.

Unless you're an expert, it might get a little messy. It's a good idea to rinse them once to see if you've missed any spots.

Ta-da! Cleaned nopales without their palitos (little sticks) = Nopalitos! I love it when a term works in different ways. You've finished the hardest part, congrats!

Now to cut them into a size we can use. I start by doing some long narrow cuts lenghtwise...

...and then finish them this a' way. Since the paddles are flat it super easy to cut, I'll leave it up to you to pick a size, yer a big kid now.

This is my preferred size. I've tried grilling the paddles whole on a bbq and I've seen recipes that suggest that, but I'm not a fan of the slime. Oh yeah, did I mention that nopales are naturally slimy?  I guess I should have before you got this far!

There's an easy way to reduce the natural babas though; get a pot of water boiling and throw in the nopalitos. After about 5-6 minutes of cooking you'll notice the water is thick and gooey. Dump all of it in a colander, rinse the nopalitos, bring some more water to boil and repeat. By the time you're done the nopales will be cooked and much of their natural "slime" will have been released in the boiling water. Drain well.

Now you have a batch of nopales ready to be prepared in your favorite recipe! I like to keep some in the fridge for a quick morning breakfast of nopales con huevos,  just saute the nopales in a tad of oil with some onions and mix it in with some eggs, I'm sure you can figure that out.

But mostly I just make an ensalada de nopal by mixing some with chopped tomatoes, thin slices of white onions, fresh chile serrano, cilantro, olive oil, salt, pepper, and some fresh squeezed limes. This time I also had some queso fresco available so I threw in some chunks, but it certainly doesn't need it, especially if you want to keep it vegan. The picture is kinda lousy but the salad is refreshing, goes great on tortillas and tostadas, and it's easy to make. It's best to eat your prepared nopales quickly as they will still release some babas. Not a bad way to spend a quarter!

I hope you give it a try. Provecho!

If you'd like to comment on this article, go here.

More crappy recipes from EL CHAVO!