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Pati Jinich Cactus_3-thumb-510x342-2304

It’s hard to think of Mexico without images of cactus plants. From landscapes to murals, to paintings, photos, plays, songs… and namely to the Mexican flag! Mexico’s coat of arms has an eagle eating a snake triumphantly standing on a cactus plant. As legend goes, that sign led the Aztecs to their promised land, Tenochtitlán.

But you know what is even harder? To think of a Mexican table without cactus, or nopales, on our plates. They’ve been a crucial ingredient since pre-Hispanic times.

Though there are hundreds of varieties, the most common is the Prickly Pear cactus. It has fleshy leaves or paddles, that are used as a vegetable in salads, stews, soups, eggs, stews, all sorts of appetizers and even smoothies and juices -a really popular one combines nopales with orange juice and my mom is fond of adding fresh spinach to the mix. They are used as a base to mount other ingredients onto, as a wrapper instead of thick tortillas and as a filler or topper for tamales, quesadillas, tostadas… They are found from breakfast to dinner options and anywhere in between (continue for more information and photos).

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They grow onwards and upwards in a funny way, from paddle to paddle. Their skin is shinny and green, and it is covered in tiny, almost transparent, thorns that happen to be quite vicious when you try to remove them from the little bumps they grow out of. If the paddles aren’t cut, those bumps grow into tunas, or prickly pear fruits.

Nopales are so filling and versatile, that I am waiting to see them star as a top choice for vegetarians outside of Mexico. More so, as they are insanely nutritious, with vitamin A, C and a loadful of Iron. And to top that off, they are low, low, low fat. They can be cooked in many ways, from boiled, to steamed, sautéed, grilled and are delightful when pickled. Whichever way they are cooked, they have an irresistible chewy meaty bite and a mild flavor that has a tart edge to it.

One reason they haven’t spread like wild fire may be that many people don’t know how to cook them and when they try, they don’t know how to deal with the gelatinous, viscous, slimy liquid they exude as they cook. Now, you can’t let yourself get discouraged from that description, there are many ways to deal with that gooey liquid -think of cooking down mushrooms-. I have my favorite way, that always works!

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Another reason nopales haven’t become so popular outside of Mexico, yet, may be that they are not… so… easy… to clean. Skilled Mexican cooks get away with removing the thorns without being pricked and out in the country they tend to be cleaned with a machete. It does take some practice, but there are ways to go about it even without such a rough tool.

In Mexico, you find nopales sold in markets and stores already cleaned and even diced. You can find them like that in a few Latin or international stores abroad, but mostly, when found fresh, you have to clean them yourself. They are also sold in jars, cans or bags preserved in a lightly pickled juice. Not my favorite, but if that is the only way you find them, grab them, run for the checkout and give them a quick rinse before you use them. Better to get that, then none at all… take it from a nostalgic Mexican…


Comments

I love your show and mexican food. I am always looking for new healty foods that is loaded with vitamins to try, I found napoles very tasty I cook them simular to okra and serve them with black-eye peas and in omeletes. I prefer vegetables. Occasionally I will eat seafood once or twice a week, we don’t get fresh fish here mostly frozen.

Nopales are such a fabulous vegetable, we eat them at home all the time.


Hi Delores, I read your comment about the “nopales” which you spelled as “napoles”. And I remembered one time that I went to a fancy restaurant to celebrate my wedding anniversary, and the waitress asked: “Would you like to try the “Napoles?”. My husband elbowed me and said: “That sounds French, it must be a French appetizer! Like Napoleon Bonaparte! Let’s get it!”
When the waitress came with the dish and we saw they were “nopales”, we were so disappointed and argued he was serving the wrong table. After clarifying the misunderstanding, we laughed so much and that made our celebration unforgettable. I’m glad you like “nopales”, they are so good and healthy!



Hola Pati!
No tienes recetas para las “tunas” ? Tengo nopales creciendo aquí en mi casa y me encantaría poder usarlas también.

Cómetelas así nada más peladas o en agua fresca!



I make them 2 ways. The first,I simmer the cut cleaned paddles in beef bullion, rinse and add to a pan of sauteed thin beef slices, delivered onions and chopped garlic. Then I add enough beef bullion to cover all along with some Mexican oregano that I have rubbed between my palms and 1 or 2 Serrano peppers. Cover and simmer about 30 minutes or so, stirring a little, thicken with some cornstarch and water to a gravy consistency, and serve over plain white rice. We love it. The other way, after boiling,I add them to chunked tomatoes and sliced onions and chopped garlic with about a teaspoon of Italian seasoning (or you can use fresh oregano, basil and marjoram if you have it) and saute in a little olive oil until all are tender. Makes a great vegetable side dish. Would like to know more about eating the fruit of the nopal?

Thank you for sharing, Jeanne!




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