46 - Ensalada de nopalitos (1)
Cactus Paddle Salad / Ensalada de Nopalitos Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl

This is the first in a series of posts that will focus on some of the less familiar produce and proteins you see while wandering the aisles of that Mexican grocery store you go to for avocados, bulk beans, Queso Fresco, chiles and masa. If you are like many of my friends, you skirt past an array of interesting and strange items that you wonder what to do with. I’ll be l highlighting an item each week, provide recipes and a little food history as well.

I thought we would start with something that may be more familiar…. at least many folks recognize these Baby Cactus Paddles or Nopalitos.


The Nopal cactus plant may well be the ultimate in sustainable plants: the pads are edible as a vegetable, it produces a beautiful flower and an edible fruit, the Prickly Pear, known in Spanish as “tuna” (which makes a great margarita). The Spanish for cactus paddle or cactus ear, “nopal” comes from the Nahuatl word nohpalli. Nopalito  refers to “baby cactus paddles”, which are younger and more tender. Select paddles that are bright green soft, but not limp. Smaller paddles are more tender,  but don’t despair if you can only find large ones; they are delicious too.

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You can see the cactus paddles in this coat of arms that appears on the Mexican flag. The legend below explains its significance.

The nopal’s place in Mexican history and lore is significant. In fact, the ancient Aztec name for what we now know as Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, means “place of the cactus”. According to Aztec mythology the founders of the city “migrated from the legendary Aztlán cave in the northwest desert which involved a protracted journey that eventually led to Lake Texcoco. During this migration priests had carried a huge idol of the god Huitzilopochtli, who whispered directions, gave the Méxica their name and promised great wealth and prosperity if he was suitably worshipped [….]. A decisive event in the migration was the rebellion incited by Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli’s sister Malinalxochitl. This was in revenge for the goddess’ abandonment by the Méxica but with Huitzilopochtli’s help Copil was killed. The great war god instructed that the rebel’s heart be thrown as far as possible into Lake Texcoco and where it landed would indicate the place the Méxica should build their new home, the precise spot being marked by an eagle sitting on a prickly-pear cactus (nopal) and devouring a snake. This is exactly what came to pass and the new capital of Tenochtitlán was built, the traditional date being 1345 CE” (from the Ancient History Encyclopedia).

According to the website Nopal Export, “In cases of drought, Nopal was the lifeblood of ancient cultures in Mexico for it was both food for the indigenous tribes and for their livestock. As the historical archives suggest Nopal was used to soothe wounds as it was used to stiffen cloth, purify water and waterproof paint. It strengthened mortar and was used fence off valued animals and to protect habitats from wild ones. Cattle that grazed on the Nopales were said to develop a special flavor to their meat and milk.”

photo (63)
Prepared nopalitos: diced (left) and whole (right)

The wonderful thing about these are that they are already prepped- one advantage of living in the Mission, so many great Latino markets, like Casa Lucas or Chicos Produce, both on 24th St. between Alabama and Harrison. that there is actually competition which as, we all know, makes for better offers– and less potentially painful, at least in the case of cactus paddles, manual labor. In the event that you are not so lucky, here is how to prepare your nopales.

The following is excerpted from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl).

TO CLEAN NOPALES it is best to wear thick gloves to protect your hands from the itchy spines. Trim off the outside edges that outlines the cactus paddle, then scrape off the tiny thorns front both and back sides by holding the nopal at the bottom (where it was attached to the cactus plant; this is the narrowest part) against a flat surface. Cut spines with a sharp knife at a 30° angle and carefully scrape thorns from the front and back of the paddle. (I find a vegetable peeler also works well if its sharp). Rinse thoroughly to remove any thorns and some of the sticky sap. You can then leave the paddles whole, cut into slices or dice, depending upon your recipe.


Nopales naturally produce a gooey liquid, much like okra.

1. Place nopales on a plate full of salt and let them cure covered with salt for to 45 minutes, this will reduce the mucilage (slime). Rinse well and pat dry with a paper towel.

2. wash nopales, clean them and boil in water for 20 minutes with salt and baking soda, Once cooked, rinse with cold water.  Clear sap by repeated rinsing in a colander.

Ensalada de Nopalitos (serves 6 – 8)

I lb. nopales, cleaned and medium dice*

1 small Mexican onion with greens

¼ finely diced red onion

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tomatoes seeds removed and finely chopped

1 or 2 serrano chiles

juice of 2 Mexican limes

2 tbsp. oil what kind

1 tbsp. vinegar what kind

Queso Fresco (optional)

salt to taste

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Season with vinegar, lime juice and oil, add salt and pepper to taste. Top with Queso Fresco.

63 - Volcanes (2)
Volcanes / Grilled Cactus Paddles with Beans and Cheese Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl

Volcanes : Grilled Cactus Paddles with Beans au Gratin/ Nopales Frijoles y Queso Gratinado (serves 6-8)

8 paddles of nopal (baby cactus)

4 oz Queso Oaxaca o Manchego

1 cup refried beans

¼ cup white onion finely chopped

Kosher or other coarse salt

Fresh Salsa Verde (not the cooked version)

Buy the nopales clean of thorns or prep following isntructions above..  Cook nopales on a dry comal or cast iron pan, on high heat for 5 minutes on each side or until see dark spots.

Once the nopales are cooked, place on a baking sheet, add a spoonful of beans and a thick slice of cheese on top of each nopal. Broil in an oven at 400° until cheese is melted and starts to brown. Serve each nopal in a pond of salsa with warm tortillas, sprinkle with fresh cilantro and raw onions, season with salt.


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