For nine years now, we Savor Sisters have regularly brought you interesting and unusual recipes for both wild and heritage foods of the Southwest. If there is a delicious Southwest food, we’ve probably written about it. We concentrate on the food, not ourselves. But recently we found ourselves at the same event, celebrating the life of ecologist Tony Burgess. Thought you might be interested in the faces behind the recipes.
In the spring, I like to remind people that it’s time to gather and cook fresh nopales or prickly pear pads. Although all prickly pear pads are edible, you want to look for the Ficus indica, the kind imported from Mexico with fewer spines. (The native Engelmann Opuntia produce better fruit.) Gather the pads in your or a neighbor’s yard (ask!) using tongs or buy them from a Mexican grocery store.
Although this variety of prickly pear lacks the big spines of the native variety, they still have very small spines that need to be removed before cooking. In this column we’ve discussed many times how to clean them. Here are the instructions with photos. Wild food enthusiast, Chad Borseth, has put together a helpful video on cleaning freshly harvested nopal pads. You can watch it here. Chad doesn’t have gloves on and is courting disaster. I suggest you wear rubber gloves, just the kind you get at the grocery for washing dishes are adequate. Also, keep a tweezers handy. If you get a sticker in your finger, just take it out. Don’t make a big deal out of it.
Once you have cleaned the prickly pear pads, you can cut them into small pieces (nopalitos) or strips, coat them with a little oil, and either fry or grill or bake in the oven. When they turn olive green, they are done.
Nopales are delicious and also really healthy. Medical studies have confirmed the folk wisdom that they are great at reducing blood sugar and cholesterol. In fact one study showed that just two small pads eaten daily can control non-insulin dependent diabetes and prevent it from worsening.
Today, I want to give you some easy ideas what to do with the nopales once you’ve cooked them. Whenever you are introducing a new unusual food to people who might be a little skeptical (or maybe it is you who is skeptical!), it is good to include them in something familiar. So here are some of my favorites. Be creative and include nopales in your family favorites.
Tomato Nopalito Salsa: In a bowl combine 1/2 cup tomato salsa (homemade or commercial), 1/2 cup cooked black beans, 1/2 cup cooked nopalitos, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro, 1 tablespoon lime juice. Serve with chips and watch it disappear.
Pineapple Salsa: Combine cooked nopalitos with crushed pineapple, red pepper, onion, garlic and other flavorings. Terrific as a topping for grilled chicken. See complete recipe in previous post here.
Fundido de Nopalito: In a small black iron frying pan, brown 1/4 cup chorizo until cooked. Add 1/4 cup cooked nopalitos, and top with 1/4 cup shredded Mexican or Monterrey jack cheese. Heat in 400 degree oven until cheese melts. Serve with soft tortillas or chips. This recipe makes a small amount so be prepared to make more right away.
Nopalito tacos: Cooked nopales have the texture and bite of meat so they make great vegetarian tacos. Use nice soft flour tortillas (the small ones). For tacos, cut your nopales in strips. Top with salsa and cheese. Add chicken or fish if you like.
Apple, Carrot and Nopalito Salad: This is a Southwest twist on an American classic. Use your own recipe or follow the directions here.
Want more recipes for prickly pear and other wild foods? You’ll find delicious ways to bring these healthy plants to your table in my cookbooks Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Wild Plants and The Prickly Pear Cookbook. The links take you on-line, but consider ordering from your local bookstore. They will love you for it.
One thought on “Nopalitos for a Healthy Side Dish”
Fruitwood nursery sells cultivars of prickly pear for the fruit! It would be totally interesting if I wanted to grow a particular cultivar. I do not know enough about them to select one though. I will just grow what I have here. To me, the nopales all look the same. I will take whatever fruit I can get.