A Traditional Recipe for Nopales (Prickly Pear Pads)

Delicious combination of nopales, onions, tomatoes, and chile paste.

Last weekend I gathered with a few friends to reminisce about a time decades ago when we were all just starting out in the world of learning about the food and animals and lifeways of the Southwest. At that time many of the members were working on graduate degrees and others of us had already launched our careers. We  formed an informal group called The Tepary Burrito Society to share our experiences in occasional “seminars” which involved a potluck and sitting cross-legged on somebody’s floor with a plate on our lap. The name Tepary Burrito Society came from the local tepary bean that had almost been lost. We were all most excited about learning how to cultivate teparies and cook with them. ( Tia Marta discussed teparies at length in this post).

Back in our “seminars,” someone would be chosen to present what subject they were working on. By the time of those meetings, I had already published my first cookbook, then called American Indian Food and Lore, now republished as American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest. I had done the research by traveling around the Southwest talking to Native American women and gathering recipes from them. At this weekend’s potluck, my friend Nancy Ferguson surprised us by bringing a recipe from that first cookbook, Beavertail Stew. No beavers are in this dish! The name comes from a nickname for prickly pears because the big flat leaves resemble a beaver’s tail. I haven’t heard that nickname recently, but this book was researched fifty years ago. 

I have always made this dish with fresh nopalitos that I have gathered and cleaned myself or from already cleaned and chopped nopalitos from a Mexican grocery store. Nancy said that she makes them with jarred nopalitos which she rinses before frying them. If you want to use fresh, I give instructions on how to do it in this previous blog post here. 

This spicy dish can be a side dish or a dip for tortilla chips.

Beavertail Stew

(Warning: this dish is spicy. Reduce the hotness by using much less chile paste. Start with a little)

1 cup nopalitos, fresh or jarred

1/4-1/2 cup chopped onion

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup chopped fresh tomato or canned 

1 to 2 tablespoons chile paste (I use Santa Cruz chile paste)

2 shakes cumin

1/4 cup shredded chicken or pork (optional)

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry the nopalitos and onions until they are slightly crisp. Add the garlic, tomato sauce, chile paste, cumin, and salt. Stir and cook a few minutes until well combined. Add a little water or tomato juice so the mixture can simmer without burning. Stir in the meat if using. Serve with toasted tortillas.


Interested in learning how to gather and prepare edible wild plants of the Southwest? Two cookbooks can guide you. American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest has traditional Native American recipes, some of them very old. These recipes are usually simple. Cooking the Wild Southwest includes more modern recipes for 23 edible wild plants that are easy to gather, easy to recognize and taste good, especially in these recipes. 

Nopalitos Pulao

Hello friends, Amy here making something different out of the same characters I always eat, again and again and again. Eating more locally and seasonally encourages creativity! Nopalitos, young prickly pear cactus pads of many species, are DELICIOUS but like okra need special care to not let them overpower the texture of a meal. Start by harvesting a tender young pad that still has its true leaves, the little cones at the top of the pads seen in the photo below. As the pad matures, the leaves yellow, fall, and a woody internal structure develops. This might be the last I harvest before a new flush of pads comes with summer rains.

Any large spines or tiny glochids can be quickly singed to ash over an open flame, holding the pad with tongs.

Singed nopalitos can be safely touched and if they turn from bright green to pale olive, they are cooked and ready to be eaten.

To showcase this little harvest I made pulao, an extremely flexible rice pilaf from India. I started with a traditional recipe changing to local veggies and nuts. Whole cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, star anise, Indian bay, fennel and black cumin can be toasted in oil or ghee. I wish I had whole nutmeg or mace to add at the beginning, because I forgot to add them as ground spices later.

Then onion, garlic, ginger and a whole green chile (a serrano frozen from last autumn’s harvest) went in to fry. Followed by Tucson CSA carrots.

Then Tucson CSA zucchini, soaked basmati rice and mint from the garden.

After several years without, I now have a great spearmint patch again. A smart gardener gives plant starts away to friends and family for backups and last year I was a grateful recipient. Anybody need some?

After water, salt and 20 minutes covered over low heat, it was ready.

After fluffing, I toasted some local pecans and sprinkled them as well as the nopalitos on top. A totally new taste for my usual veggie friends. If you like this, you make like Tia Marta’s cholla bud jambalaya.

Call It Prickly Pear, Call it Nopal. It’s time for harvest.

Every year, for thousands of years, people living in the Sonoran Desert could count on prickly pear producing succulent delicious new pads this time of year. The native varieties of Opuntia have lots of thorns and it must have been a chore to clean them when all you had was a sharp-edged stone for a tool. Carolyn here today, recalling that one of the reasons that Tucson was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy is that modern Sonoran Desert dwellers eat some of the same foods people ate here when they were just small family groups drifting through the area, long before there were even villages. That’s quite a testament to the staying power of these local foods.

You need to pick prickly pear pads in the spring when they are only a few weeks old. As they mature they develop a woody interior structure. You can buy fresh pads year ’round in Mexican grocery stores. They are grown by farmers who know how to manipulate their plants through trimming and fertilizing to produce throughout the season.


A fresh prickly pear pad, tender and succulent. Very obvious that it is new growth.

Interior structure of a prickly pear pad where the green flesh has rotted away.

Today, most of us who like to pick and eat prickly pear use the Ficus indica variety that grows taller and without big thorns on the young pads. It is native to areas further south, but it can survive here in gardens. Although the big thorns are absent, there are, however, tiny stickers called glochids, and they can be dangerous so you should wear rubber gloves when working with the pads. The glochids look like small hairs but they do have barbs on the end. You don’t want them in your finger or your tongue! I tend to just scrape the sides of the pad with a serrated steak knife, then cut off the edge as in these pictures. The edge has so many thorns it is not worthwhile to try to clean it so just trim it off.

Use a serrated steak knife to clean the thorns and glochids from the prickly pear pad.

My friend Chad Borseth takes a more nuanced approach to cleaning the pads, cutting out just the glochids. He sells lots of edible wild plant products on his website Sky Island Spice Co. and has made this video of cleaning the pads. If you want a better idea of just how to go about it, take a look at the video.

The nopalitos are done when they turn olive green.

Once you have the cleaned pads, you’ll need to cut them up into strips or small squares and cook them. Now you have turned your nopal into nopalitos. You can do this in oil in a frying pan, or follow the Rick Bayless method and oil them, place on a cookie sheet and bake until olive green. The cooking shrivels them and dries up the gummy sap that is so healthful but that some people find objectionable.

You can put the cooked nopalitos into a taco, combined with meat or alone. Or, if you are introducing them to people who might be wary, include them as a new ingredient in some familiar food.  In a previous post we gave a recipe for nopalitos in pineapple salsa which is a great side dish. It comes from The Prickly Pear Cookbook. 

Another super easy familiar dish is this apple and carrot salad, with, of course, nopalitos. It is adapted from Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants, a compilation of information on how to gather and cook 23 delicious and easily gathered desert plants.

Apple, carrot, and nopalito salad is a delicious way to introduce people to their first taste of cactus.

Apple, Carrot and Nopalito Salad

1 small cleaned prickly pear pad

1 cup shredded carrot

½ shredded apple


2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons milk

½ teaspoon sugar, honey, or agave syrup

Sprinkle of salt

Cut the prickly pear pad into very small pieces and bake on a greased cookie sheet in a 200-degree oven until dried and slightly chewy. This should take 15-30 minutes depending on how juicy the nopalitos are. Or put them in a frying pan with just enough oil to coat the pan and cook until olive green. The pieces will shrivel.

Meanwhile make the dressing by combining the mayonnaise and milk in a small bowl. Season with the sweetner and salt. Set aside.

When the nopalitos are chewy, add the carrot, apple, and nopalitos to the dressing. Stir and serve. It looks nice on a lettuce leaf.


If you are interested in edible wild plants of the Southwest and Southwest food, check out my books Cooking the Wild Southwest, Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants, The New Southwest Cookbook, a complilation of recipes from the Southwest’s top chefs, and The Prickly Pear Cookbook, with great recipes for both pads and fruits. There is more information about them at www.cniethammer.com.

Buy copies on line or order from your favorite local bookstore. They will love you for it.

April Brings Nopales

Grilled Chicken with Nopalito and Pineapple Salsa

Grilled Chicken with Nopalito and Pineapple Salsa (from The Prickly Pear Cookbook)

If it’s April, it’s time to gather nopales here on the Sonoran Desert. Carolyn here today tempting you to read further with this photo of a delicious salsa made with nopalitos. (Definition of nopalito: a nopal, or cactus pad, cut into little pieces).  At the bottom of the post, I’m going to give you the recipe and a video of how to turn a cactus pad into a yummy taco.

The many varieties of prickly pear put out their new growth when the spring warms up. All prickly pear pads are edible (meaning they not only won’t kill you but in this case are very nutritious), but they are only appropriate for food when they are new. After about six weeks, they develop a fibrous infrastructure. The easiest kind to prepare are the pads from the large Mexican variety of prickly pear that do not grow wild this far north. They are called Ficus indica or sometimes Burbank because Luther Burbank did some breeding work on them. The wild cactus pads are also delicious, but harder to prepare because of the abundance of spines.  You can do a rough estimate of when a pad is ready to pick if it is about the size of your hand. The nopales available in Mexican grocery stores are grown by farmers who know how to manipulate the plant to keep fresh pads coming year ’round.

Pick nopales in the spring when the size of your hand.

Pick nopales in the spring when the size of your hand.

To prepare the nopales, you’ll use  tongs, of course, and then don rubber kitchen gloves to protect your hands as you get rid of the stickers. You don’t need industrial strength gloves, just good quality ones from the grocery store will do. Using a common steak knife, scrape vigorously against the growth (from outer edge to stem) to remove the stickers.

Scrape the thorns vigorously in the direction of the stem.

Scrape the thorns vigorously in the direction of the stem.

The edge has lots of stickers so just trim it off.

IMG_0196At this point, you can cut it into small pieces to cook or leave it whole and cut it up later. You can cook them in a frying pan filmed with oil, or use the Rick Bayless method (he of TV show fame) and toss them with a little oil, sprinkle with sale, put on a cookie sheet and roast in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes.  In any case, you should check them and turn them over as they cook.

Cut into small pieces to cook.

Cut into small pieces to cook.

The nopales will turn from bright green to a more olive color as they cook. The gummy sap that some people find objectionable will dry up and become less noticeable.

The cooked nopalitos turn from bright green to olive.

The cooked nopalitos turn from bright green to olive.

You can also cook nopales on the barbecue alongside some chicken to make a delicious taco. This video ( find it at the bottom of the magazine article) shows you how to clean the nopal and grill it.  Take a look here.

Here’s the recipe for the sauce in the picture at the top of the blog:

Grilled Chicken  with Nopalito and Pineapple Salsa

(Makes 4 servings)

This is good to serve as a light entrée with rice and a vegetable.  It is also great as a stuffing for fresh flour tortillas topped with shredded lettuce.

1 raw, cleaned prickly pear pad

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup canned crushed pineapple packed in it’s own juice

¼ cup finely chopped red bell pepper

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, including some tops

1 tablespoons canned green chiles

1 finely minced serrano chile (optional)

½ teaspoon finely minced garlic

2 tablespoons lime juice

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro (optional)

4 large boneless chicken breasts

Cut prickly pear pad in 1 ½ inch squares.  Film a heavy frying pan with the oil and add the prickly pear pads.  Cook over low heat, turning occasionally, until pieces have given up much of their juice and are slightly brown. Remove from pan, cool, and chop into pieces as wide as a matchstick and about ¼-inch long.

Transfer to medium bowl.  Add remaining ingredients, stir to combine and set aside for flavors to mingle.

Grill chicken breasts until done. Slice each one crosswise into five or six pieces and arrange each on a plate.  Put a portion of the salsa on top of  or beside the chicken.


Want more recipes for the bountiful crop of nopales we’ll have this year?  Check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  You can flip through The Prickly Pear Cookbook here. Both books are available locally at Native Seeds/SEARCH on Campbell or from on-line booksellers.

How Nopales Become Nopalitos

Pick prickly pear pads when they are the size of your hand.

Pick new prickly pear pads in the spring when they are the size of your hand.

Carolyn Niethammer with you this week. In our last post,  Martha Burgess wrote about how early cholla buds were appearing this year. I have seen pads beginning to form on the native prickly pear, but not yet on my Ficus Indica, the tall Mexican variety.  But they will be out soon, so let’s talk about how to prepare them for use in salads and casseroles.

Scape off the stickers with a serrated steak knife.

Scape off the stickers with a serrated steak knife.

First thing is to don your rubber gloves. Even though these cactus pads don’t have large stickers, they do have the tiny glochids that can be awful to get out of your hands. Then using an old-fashioned steak knife with a serrated edge, go against the grain to scrape off the stickers. Keep a paper towel nearby to clean the knife and keep your working surface clean.

Trim off the edge.

Trim off the edge.

There are an abundance of stickers on the edge of the pad, so just trim it off and discard it.

The nopal becomes nopalitos.

The nopal becomes nopalitos.

At this point you can put the whole, cleaned  nopal on the grill next to  some chicken pieces or pork chops. Or you can chop the pad into smallish pieces. The Chicago restaurant owner, TV star and author Rick Bayless coats the pieces with oil, puts them on a cookie sheet and bakes until done.  You can also do it in a frying pan.  Cook until the color changes to a more olive hue. The slippery substance that is so healthy for your blood will dry up and become less noticeable.

Cook nopalitos until they turn olive colred and loose some of their moisture.

Cook nopalitos until they turn olive colred and loose some of their moisture.

I watched my friend Amy Valdez Schwemm do a nopal cooking demo at the Mercado last year. Her method is a little different. After cleaning the nopal, she cooks it whole and cuts it up later.  If you are cooking in a frying pan, this eliminates having to flip each piece individually.


Amy cooks the pads whole then cuts later.

Amy cooks the pads whole then cuts later.

At this point you can add to a salad (maybe picnic-style potato salad) or a casserole such as this one with lentils from my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.

French Green Lentils with Nopalitos

French Green Lentils with Nopalitos

Although prickly pear is a New World plant, it has spread over the globe. The Spaniards originally took it back to Europe from Mexico. I was fascinated to learn that it has colonized in Ethiopia in a big way.  Some impoverished groups live on the prickly pear fruits for months when they are ripe. But people do not eat the pads there, although they feed them to their livestock.  Here are some photos my friend Seyoum took showing prickly pear and his family in Irob, Ethiopia.

A very large prickly pear plant in Irob, Ethiopia.

A very large prickly pear plant in Irob, Ethiopia.


Preparing nopales for the livestock.

Preparing nopales for the livestock.

All prickly pear pads are edible; it just depends on how much time you want to spend getting the stickers off. I usually wait until the Ficus Indica pads develop. Those with access to a Mexico grocery store can usually find them there, sometimes already cleaned. Once they are cleaned, they tend to deteriorate quickly, so buy just before you want to cook them. The very best tasting prickly pear pads I’ve ever eaten are grown on the foggy slopes of central California by John Dicus at Rivenrock Gardens. You can find him at http://www.rivenrock.com. He will go in the morning and pick you a boxful and it will be on your porch the next day. They are so fresh, they will last for many weeks in the refrigerator. He grows a variety he found in Maya country in Mexico and they are virtually spineless. And delicious!


Excited to try prickly pear?  I give you lots of recipes in The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Very helpful for controlling blood sugar and cholesterol.