Cactus Paddle (Nopales) Salad

This salad turned out tasting as good as it looks, which I will admit surprised me a little bit.  When I suggested including a few Southwest Native American recipes in our Dia de los Muertos menu, I had to admit that “my people” (I’m of Indian heritage) ate a lot of things because … well … they were available.  Not necessarily easy or really all that good by modern dining standards.  Nopales — the leaves or paddles of the prickly pear cactus — are a case in point.  Totally inhospitable little critters, and ultimately you could probably substitute a lot of other vegetables in this salad to decent effect — think blanched asparagus or green beans, or perhaps roasted green peppers to go with the red.  But then could you claim the novelty of having eaten a cactus for dinner (coupled with the accompanying margaritas, to come)?  So if you’re in the Yucatan (or near a Whole Foods and feeling like a creative challenge), give this a genuine try.

The lowly but well-defended prickly pear cactus.  In it’s natural state and habitat, you would have to be really, really hungry to think “yeah, that looks good!”

Nopale Salad

For a print friendly recipe see below

3 oranges
6 large prickly pear cactus paddles (nopales)
2 red bell peppers
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted

For Jalapeno Vinaigrette:
6 tablespoons sunflower or other light oil
3 tablespoons tarragon or other herb-flavored vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
2 green jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely-chopped

Thankfully, Whole Foods caters to sissies.  This is how the nopales come, along with the pears for the margaritas; mostly defanged!

Note I said “mostly” defanged … you are going to want to make really sure all the spines are out.  Nothing ruins a good Day of the Dead celebration or any other meal like everyone ending up with swollen sores in their mouths.  Put on your heaviest gloves — if you’re a resourceful sailor in oyster waters, your oyster shucking gloves may be far better than your deck gloves!  And scrape with a knife until all the spines are completely gone.  Then go around the edges with a vegetable peeler for good measure.

Next, blanche the nopales in boiling, salted water for a minute or two, until they turn bright green.  Remove with tongs and cool slightly … unless you still have those gloves around and can handle the heat.

Slice the nopales on the diagonal into 1/2 inch wide strips.  Then rinse them THOROUGHLY in cold water — they must be a plant relative to okra because they have the same prolific slime habit.  Drain and set aside.

Char the red bell peppers under a broiler or over a flame for a few minutes per side, then put them in a plastic bag or closed Tupperware for a few minutes to sweat off their skins.  Seed them and peel as much skin off as you can — though no need to get all of it.  Then slice the peppers to match the nopales.

Whisk together all of the dressing ingredients, and toss with the nopales and pepper strips.

Peel the oranges and slice into rounds; arrange the rounds on a platter and top with the dressed nopale and pepper strips.  Sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds and admire, then enjoy!  Serve with prickly pear margaritas to complete the bragging rights.


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