I’m officially announcing my new favorite ingredient: nopales! I’m having tons o’ fun with edible beaver tail cactus and its fruit (prickly pear or ‘tuna’) since it grows wild on Pie Ranch and since Spring is the best time to harvest the tender paddles and the sweet magenta fruit. Nopales have a piquant flavor – like a funky sour green bean that’s been overcooked. I know that sounds horribly unappetizing and if you’re having flashbacks to canned green bean casserole, I apologize, but I promise it’s tasty. Edible cactus has a fantastic sour bite that makes mild dishes (think omelettes and quiches) more interesting and tossed in salads it adds a nice zing.
The easiest way to prepare nopales into nopalitos (diced edible cactus) is to buy it freshly prepped and packaged. No joke. But if you’ve got cactus growing on your farm or in your backyard here’s what to do, go to: Pati’s Mexican Table and read her method which I think works the best (and I love her blog besides). She also talks about how to choose the cactus paddle. I could paraphrase Chef Pati, but in her own words:
“Nopales are persnickety, their thorns are almost invisible, but a good clue is that wherever there is a bump there may be a thorn. Then, using a vegetable peeler or small sharp knife, pretty much as if they were asparagus, peel away the bumps and thorns, you may want to lean the nopales against a chopping board, and then rinse again. No need to peel off all of the outer dark green skin, in fact, try to keep as much as you can.”
Nopales when cooked are sticky. They secrete this clear goo that can be hard to get rid of and annoying when used unbaked in a salad (as opposed to a quiche where the goo will cook into the mixture). I blanch nopalitos first in boiling salted water, shock in ice water, and then sauté with a little cooking oil in a smoking hot pan briefly until the mucous evaporates. I haven’t tried grilling them yet, although I hear that works well, and the smokiness from the grill would be awesome with this. Chef Pati prefers to sauté nopalitos like mushrooms until the liquid evaporates and she skips the blanching.
Heirloom carrots are polar opposite of course to noplalitos, and sweet as candy. They are beautiful roasted, but this Spring they are so sugary eaten raw and their colors are popping in crimson, orange, yellow, and white; so why not let them be as they are….
You don’t need a mandolin always to get that cool shaved vegetable look. I use a non-serrated vegetable peeler for carrots and put my shaved slices directly in ice water which makes them curl up. They can keep this way for up to 2 days. Holding the carrot flat on a cutting board, use the peeler to shave the carrot from top to bottom with a little more pressure than normal. Smaller carrots will yield better bite-sized curls that aren’t too big and floppy. And I never pre-peel the crimson carrots before shaving them down because all that outer deep red color is lost.
Making farm cheese from fresh milk straight from the cow is much easier than one would think. But I’m going save that for another post because you’re probably bored by my rambling and it’s a lengthy process even though it’s not too difficult. Queso or goat cheese would be a great sub if farm cheese is not something you whip up à la minute at home. I’m blessed to work in a rural setting amongst several organic dairy farms and everyone’s got their own farm cheese technique, so I mostly take what I can, where I can! Nopales and soft cheese are a great pairing. If you like pickles and cheese together, you’ll love cactus and cheese together.
Perhaps you’re thinking this is a simple salad that I’ve managed to totally over explain and over engineer. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But sometimes for me it’s the little ingredients, on their own, that get me so excited as opposed to the conglomeration. Thankfully I didn’t go on about the lettuce, and you know I really wanted to! Next time…
For more Nopales Recipes around the Blogosphere:
- 1-2 small to medium tender edible cactus paddles (nopales), diced
- 4 heirloom carrots of different colors, shaved
- 4-5 baby head lettuces (little gems can work)
- Sprigs of cilantro to garnish
- Farm cheese, queso, crumbly goat cheese for garnish
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup canola or grapeseed oil (not flavored)
- 2 tbsp agave
- 1-2 dashes hot sauce
- Salt to taste
Using a vegetable peeler or pairing knife cut off the bumps and thorns of the nopales paddle and rinse when finished. Try to retain the dark green skin j just peel off the inedible parts. Dice the paddles into 1/2-inch pieces to turn nopales into nopalitos.
Bring a medium pot of salted water to boil and blanch nopalitos for 1 minute, then shock in ice water to stop the cooking. Rinse nopalitos well – they will be sticky and oozing of clear goo (I know, sounds scary right?). Drain well and sauté cactus with a little cooking oil in a smoking hot pan until the mucous evaporates.
Holding the carrot flat on a cutting board, use the peeler to shave the carrot from top to bottom with a little more pressure than normal. Smaller carrots will yield better bite-sized curls that aren't too big and floppy. Do not pre-peel the crimson carrots before shaving them down because the outer red color will be lost.
For the vinaigrette: whisk agave into lime juice and then oil into lim-agave mixture. Season with sea salt and a dash or two of hot sauce.
Toss vinaigrette with lettuce leaves and layer leaves on plate. Toss carrots and nopolitos with vinaigrette and garnish on top with cilantro and farm cheese. Easy!