Never Judge a Nopal By Its Stingers

I have a confession to make. I want something so badly that I'm willing to steal it.

I'm going to take my long sharp knife and risk life and limb to get me some, even if it means jumping the wall into Doña Hortencia's backyard and facing down Diablito, that psychopath ankle-snapping chihuahua of hers. Just to get my hands on those fresh and tender nopalitos—the flat paddle-shaped pads of the prickly pear cactus (how's that for a bit of alliteration?). And for any of you who think that I'm one tortilla short of a stack for wanting to commit such a foolish and criminal act, all I have to say is that only a Mexican who doesn't have a cactus of her own knows how I feel.
Some of my friends smile at me indulgently with the kind of a look that they usually reserve for little children or people who are loco en la cabeza whenever I mention nopales. Why eat anything as prickly and as slimy and just plain dangerous, they ask? Poor souls, if they only knew. For lurking beneath its nasty agüates (stingers) and forbidding exterior lies the tender heart of a saint. If you like the fresh taste of farm fresh green beans and asparagus with a hint of lemon, then you are on your way to loving nopales in just about anything Mexican: With your scrambled eggs with pinto beans and a homemade tortilla for breakfast. In salads. In tacos. In the Mexican classic, Dried Shrimp Paddies with Molé Sauce, a favorite of mine. And, if that weren't enough, nopales just might lower blood sugar levels (listen up, my diabetic friends). If you are concerned about its okra-like baba (slime), well, it doesn't have to be if you cook it right. Give it a try, and you will find that even unattractive things have a beauty beyond just mere appearance.
I looked over into Doña Hortencia's backyard today. That was all it took for the aptly named Diablito to come charging, bearing his canines and bursting my ear drums with his mad incessant yapping, jumping up and down, frantically trying to bite off my fingers. Somehow, my heart failed me just then. I did not relish the prospect of turning into a fur-lined maniac's taco. So I knocked on Doña Hortencia's door instead and pleaded with her in the most pathetic tones for some nopalitos. There was a trace of amusement in those old brown eyes of hers. She must have seen me peeking into her backyard.
She hesitated for a moment and then replied:"¡Pues, claro qué sí!—Why, of course you can!"
What ever possessed me to think I could steal some nopales from such a nice viejita?
Tomorrow afternoon I'm bringing my big long knife and I'm going to lop off some nopalitos, some for me and some for Doña Hortencia .
Boiled or Sauteed Nopalitos, Salad Included.You can buy nopales at the supermarket pre-chopped and stripped of their stingers, but I find that the ones that are fresh off the cactus tastes best. Each cactus pad should be no more that 8 inches in length (about the size of your hand), and exhibit a fresh green color. It should never look shriveled or tough. This is not a recipe per se, but a guide to making as much or as little as you like. Depending on the recipe or your preference, you can boil or sauté them until they are perfect.

First step:

Wear a pair of gloves and trim off the outer edge of the nopales. Then using the sharp edge of the knife, scrape off all of the stingers. Cut about an inch off the lower end of nopal. Rinse the nopales under cold running water and closely examine them, making sure that there are absolutely no stingers left.
To Boil:

Bring some water to a boil in a large pot or pan with about half an onion, one or two smashed garlic cloves, and salt to taste. Put the whole cactus pads in the boiling water. Lower heat to medium and boil the nopales for about 15 minutes or so, or until they are easily pierced with a fork. You can pre-chop the nopales if you wish, but I think that boiling them whole preserves more of the flavor.

Drain the nopales into a colander; cover them with a damp cloth, and let them sit for about half an hour or so while any excess moisture drains into a bowl.

Using a sharp knife, dice or slice the nopales according to your taste. You can now scramble them with your eggs for a new take on breakfast.

Here's a simple but utterly delicious recipe for NOPALES SALAD:
Mix the boiled nopales with fresh chopped tomatoes, sliced green onion, fresh minced jalapeño and chopped cilantro. Just add some quality bottled red wine Italian salad dressing or your own homemade vinaigrette. (See picture at the top). Add some queso fresco and eat it with anything Mexican (except dessert!).
Sautéed:On a hot skillet add 1 tablespoon olive oil, 4 cups diced or sliced fresh nopales, 2 cups white onion, 2 cloves garlic, minced, any finely chopped fresh chile (optional) and garlic salt to taste. Over medium heat, continue sautéing until the slime completely evaporates and the nopales are slightly charred and the onion is sweet and golden brown. Remove the nopal mixture from the heat and add finely chopped cilantro to taste. Add a corn or flour tortilla and a bit of salsa and you have the perfect vegetarian taco.


Anonymous said...

Gracias por comentar en mi blog. Para freir los nopales los corto en tiras pero los dejo conectados al fondo, como forma da abanico. Asi que les escapa la baba al freir, y luego al enfriar, cada persona recibe una mano hecha ensalada.

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Que linda idea. Creo que la proxima vez, los hare exactamente como tu los haces.

Monica said...

Hola, Clementina.
Me llamo Monica and I am the owner of Latin Baby an on-line baby boutique. I also run the blogs, Mi Cielito Lindo and the LBBC. I discovered your blog via Spanglish Baby and wondered if you might possibly be interested in contributing once a month to Mi Cielito Lindo on the subject of recipes? If you'd like more information, please email me at

Anonymous said...

Clementina, thank you for your visit to my blog Roses in winter and leaving such a nice comment. I have visited here before and really like your blog.

Yarnhog said...

I think this falls into the category of "extreme cooking." I think I'll stick to the carnitas for now!

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Hello Yarnhog!
I know it does sound a TAD extreme, but make the nopales salad and serve it with the carnitas you just might change your mind.

Anonymous said...

Interesting... a few days ago I was talking to a co-worker about Nopalitos. I even showed her your blog since I was sure you had probably already wrote something about them. When I did the search, I didn't find anything. I look again and you have a blog on what I wanted pass on to my co-worker. Muchisimas Gracias! -YR

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Dear YR,
I hope your friend will enjoy the nopalitos--they are an acquired taste for some people, but have her try out the nopales salad recipe with some fresh tortillas, hot chile salsa and refried beans. That's how I love my nopalitos.

Pearmama said...

Again, you have stirred up childhood memories. My Nana had a huge patch of cactus in the backyard and she would often make nopalitos with eggs for breakfast. We would scrunch up our noses at it, but they when the smell would waft in our nose, we would break down and eat it. I haven't had any in years. I should, my mom now lives in my Nana's house, and that patch of cactus is still back there.

My fave was when she cooked it with red chile sauce. mmmmmmm

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Hola bonita. Well, if I were you I'd go to your nana's house right now with your cuichillo and I would lop some nopales for tomorrow's breakfast so that your young ones will rave about your nopales someday.
Nopalitos with chile colorado? Ay, ay, ay--I want some right now!

Mari said...

I have learned to like cactus, and I think, I'm ready to try sauteed.

Thanks for your visit to my blog. I will come here again.

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Hi Mari,
I hope you'll enjoy eating them sauteed. Do as Tixrus does (she's at the top): Slice the cactus paddle in strips lengthwise, just to about the last 1/2 inch or so, so it can resemble a fan.

kobico said...

Haha, I clicked on "chocolate" in another blog and found nopales (and yes, the salad is yummy with fresh salsa).

I loved prickly pear when I was a kid, but have had bad sticker experiences when I handled them without gloves -- pain for days!

Love your blog.

Clementina aka "La Traductora" said...

Hola Kobico-
Perhaps you should give those nasty prickly little pears another try--only use gloves this time!
Thanks for visiting!