Posts Tagged With: nopales

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

 


 


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