The Nopales Cactus

The nopal cactus is a desert delight. The succulent is native to the Southwestern United States and certain parts of Mexico. 

The nopal cactus is recognizable thanks to its flat, paddle-like appearance. These pads are called nopales or nopalitos. The nopal cactus also grows prickly pear fruit. This brightly colored fruit is another popular flavor in Southwestern cooking.  

Fruit and cacti are a huge part of Mexican cuisine. They are a versatile group of foods with a wide array of tastes. The nopal cactus, in particular, can be enjoyed in a plethora of different ways. The pads can be eaten raw, cooked, jellied, juiced, or even sauteed. 

With so many different ways to enjoy it, it is no wonder that the nopal cactus has found its way into many Mexican dishes. The cactus is also recognizable, thanks to its flowering fruit. 

These little round fruits are often found in candies, used as a flavoring for drinks, or jellied. The nopal cactus has a lot going for it in terms of utility, not to mention taste! 

The nopal cactus has been enjoyed in Mexican cuisine and culture for hundreds of years. In fact, the Mexican national emblem depicts an eagle standing on a nopal cactus. 

Nutrition plays a great part in the popularity of this plant. It is rich in fiber, which can support gut health and keep you healthier overall. 

Check out these three easy recipes utilizing the nopal cactus. 

Nopales a la Mexicana 

Nopales a la Mexicana makes a delicious lunch or dinner. It uses basic ingredients to compliment the star of the show, our nopal cactus. 

What does it mean to cook something “a la Mexicana”? It is quite simple. 

A dish served a la Mexicana usually means that the dish is accompanied by or cooked with three integral Mexican ingredients. These are tomatoes, onions, and peppers. 

In Nopales a la Mexicana, a few other ingredients are thrown into the mix. These bonus flavors build on the strong foundation that nopales a la Mexicana have. 

This dish consists of the following ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon of vegetable or olive oil
  • 2 cups of Nopales chopped and cooked
  • ¼ cup of white onion chopped
  • 1 Garlic clove chopped
  • 2 serrano peppers diced
  • 1 cup of tomato chopped
  • 2 sprigs of cilantro
  • Salt and pepper 

The beauty of this dish comes from its simplicity. It can all be cooked in the same pan. 

To begin, heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add in the onions. 

As the onions cook down, add in the serrano peppers are chopped garlic. 

After a few minutes, toss in the tomatoes. Let the juices mix in and cook down slightly before adding the final ingredient. 

Finally, add in the chopped nopalitos. Cook this all together for about another five minutes. Don’t forget to add the chopped cilantro towards the final few minutes. 

If your dish has become too dry through the process, you can add a few tablespoons of water to up the moisture. 

To finish, season the dish with salt and pepper to your taste. Enjoy this cactus-centric dish with a refreshing beverage, and thank us later! 

Grilled Cactus Pads

This next recipe is pretty straightforward. It allows the magic of the nopal cactus to shine through with minimal distractions. 

Though these cacti are a fantastic companion to a meat dish, they are just as delicious when enjoyed on their own. 

This recipe can also serve as a side dish to whichever main course you may be trying out. These nopales are sure to be a hit whether they are the supporting act or center stage. 

The ingredients needed for this recipe are as follows;

  • 6-8 nopales
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

These nopalitos don’t need much to create a flavorful, mouth-watering dish. 

Firstly, scrape off the nopale’s thorns with a sharp knife. Next, brush oil, salt, and pepper over the pad. 

Grill the paddles on medium heat, directly on the grill for two minutes on each side. 

Whether or not the nopales are done will be revealed by their colors. Once the cactus paddle turns dark green and soft, it is ready to serve. 

Slice or cut to your preference and serve them up! 

Nopales in Chile Rojo 

Our final recipe for nopales is nopales in chile rojo. The beauty of this recipe is that you can customize it to no end. 

Since you will be adding the nopales to chile, there is a lot of freedom of choice. You can use whatever chile mixture is your current favorite or the one that was passed down through generations of your family. 

The beauty of Mexican cooking comes from adding your own flair to each dish. The versatility of nopales allows this to ring true. 

To make this dish, you will need: 

  • 2 ½ pounds of nopales (6 to 8 large paddles)
  • 7 medium dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded, and rinsed
  • 2 medium beefsteak tomatoes, quartered
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  •  Salt
  • 1 tablespoon of oil
  • ½ teaspoon of ground cumin
  • ¼ cup of pepitas, toasted
  • ¼ cup of cilantro leaves
  • Flaky finishing salt
  • 12 corn tortillas for serving

The process is the most involved of our three recipes. However, that is only because it involves a more complex recipe for the chile rojo. 

The grilled nopales follow the same recipe as the one above. 

For the chile rojo, begin by boiling two cups of water. 

Next, add the chiles, tomatoes, garlic, and salt. Cover the mixture partially and turn down the heat. Simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes. 

While the chile mixture cooks, grill your nopales. This follows the same process as above. 

Once they are grilled, cool the nopales. During that time, transfer your chile mixture into a blender and mix. 

Slice your cooled nopalitos and place them into a pan on medium. Add in the chile mixture and simmer the nopales in it.

To serve, heat some flour tortillas to have on the side of your chile rojo. Once the mixture is adequately heated, serve and enjoy!  

No Problemo Nopalitos! 

Hopefully, one of these recipes will strike your fancy and invite you into the wide world of cooking with cactus! 

These desert dreams are versatile and good for you. These recipes are only an introduction to the wide variety of dishes that feature the cactus. 

Not only are these nutritious prickly pals fun to cook with, but they also speak to Mexican heritage. These cacti have been an important part of Mexican culture and cuisine for hundreds of years. So much so they’ve made their way onto the emblem. 

Get creative with your nopal cactus. Enjoy it in chile, grilled on its own, or entirely raw with a refreshing beverage. No matter what, you’re sure to be delighted by this savory succulent.  

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Sources: 

Nopal cactus: Benefits, recipes, and nutrition | Medical News Today 

Nopal Cactus: Benefits, Uses, and More | Healthline 

Six Things You Didn't Know About Nopales – Like What They Are | Food Literacy Center

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