Young pad of our native Engelmann’s prickly pear. Note the little leaves protruding from each aureole. (MABurgess photo)
Luscious and healthy hors d’oeuvres–nopalito tortilla chips! They are sturdier than other chips and much better for dipping. (MABurgess photo)
Here’s an off-the-wall-fun idea that will enhance a party or pot luck to bring a zillion laughs and mmmm’s, not to mention great new taste. It’s tortilla chips made with something you can pick from the “back forty” in the desert for free, i.e. fresh prickly pear cactus pads—nopalitos. Talk about justifying your addiction to tortilla chips by enhancing your vitamin intake AND balancing your blood sugar!
This idea came originally via my cousins in California who frequent farmers markets, where they found “Nopaltillas,” a trademarked chip produced by Nopaltilla LLC. [Google “cactus chips” for a full description.]
Sez I, “For having some fun in the des, burning off a few calories, why not make them ourselves?” Tia Marta here to share with you my experiences making Cactus Corn Chips –Nopalito Tortilla Chips.
Young pad of orange flowered O.linheimeri ready for harvesting to make nopal tortilla chips (MABurgess photo)
Notice the leaves on these cladophyll. This is the right stage for harvesting nopales.
Chips are great any time, but now in May (beginning in April) is perfect for this seasonal “specialty.” Through spring in the Sonoran Desert, our first exercise is to recognize new growth on a prickly pear cactus. The so called “pads” on a prickly pear are really inflated green stems–not leaves. These vertical, flat, succulent oval pads (called nowh by the Tohono O’odham and cladodes by botanists) grow out from the edges of mature, spiny pads. You can recognize the young pads by their thinner shape, their brighter green color, AND the KEY INDICATOR, tiny dunce-cap-shaped prongs at each aereole (spots on the pads where spines emerge.) These little dunce caps are the only true LEAVES on a cactus! They are temporary, shed when major heat arrives. Only harvest pads if you see those little green dunce-caps!! Be ye warned: not all pads will do as food. The presence of the tiny leaves shows there is, as yet, no woody tissue inside. Unless you have the digestive system of a termite to break down cellulose, don’t try to eat mature prickly pear pads.
Wild-harvesting the youthful pads will require tongs, a pocketknife, and 360 degree awareness to avoid touching tiny hair-like spines called glochids that are really bothersome in skin or clothing. Go to www.desertharvesters.org for good instruction. Far easier to find young pads in town on the semi-spineless nopal in many older yards around Baja Arizona, the cultivated Indian-fig cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica, first propagated by Nahuatl people of central Mexico. Better still, I suggest that you grow your own. What I grow in my garden in harvestable profusion is an orange-flowered species Opuntia lindheimeri, very productive with nopalitos and tunas. Whichever nopales you harvest, you’ll need to singe off the spines and leaves over a flame or gas stove before you dice them to prep for making our nopalito chips.
Freshly diced nopalitos ready to puree. Labor-saving short cut: these are available from Food City!
The “cheater option” is to purchase fresh-diced nopalitos or fresh nopal pads in the produce section of Food City. These are in fact from the same Indian-fig cactus available by reaching over any fence in old neighborhoods.
Chopping diced nopalitos in Cuisinart
Pureed fresh nopalitos prepped for mixing with masa to make nopal tortilla chips–pretty weird –such a rich healthy green!
Now for the quick and easy recipe:
Nopalito Tortilla Chips
You will need a Cuisinart or mixer, mixing bowl and fork, flat surface and rolling pin OR a tortilla press, gallon ziplock bag, tea-towel, hot griddle, and oven.
2 cups corn Maseca (instant masa corn flour mix from Mexican foods section of grocery)
1 1/2 cups diced fresh nopalitos
3-10 tbsp warm water
1/4 tsp sea salt (and powdered salt–optional–for surface)
Directions with photos:
Puree your diced nopalitos.
Add pureed nopalito liquid into the masa flour and mix
In a bowl with the 2 cups masa flour and sea salt, pour pureed nopalito liquid gradually into the masa flour and stir until dough becomes workable with hands and not sticking to the sides of the bowl. If mixture is too dry, add water one tablespoon at a time, mixing after each until you can make a dough ball with your hands.
Rolled balls of nopalitos masa dough golf-ball size left to set awhile
Roll chunks of dough into golfball-size balls and set aside covered with tea-towel for up to an hour to set. Cut the sides of a gallon plastic bag.
If you don’t have a tortilla press you can flatten your dough ball between 2 layers of a cut ziplock with a rolling pin
Place ball of dough within two sides of the plastic to flatten with rolling pin or in a tortilla press.
Nopalito tortilla on a hot griddle–You can even grill it on a glass-top stove like this or in an iron skillet over an open fire.
On a medium-hot griddle cook the flat tortilla dough on both sides until edges are tinged golden brown. Tortillas should still be flexible.
Cutting a stack of warm tortillas into corn chip size
Cut tortillas to chip size. Brush sparingly with corn oil, avocado oil, or olive oil. Place in a hot oven (400 degrees) for 6-8 minutes watching carefully to remove before browning. Dust with powdered salt if desired. Serve hot or cold.
Nopalito tortilla chips brushed lightly with oil and then baked in a medium-hot oven
You will find that nopalito tortilla chips have a wonderful tangy flavor, and also a sturdiness that will not crack with heavy bean dips or guacamole.
And what nutrition! Nixtamalized corn in the masa has preserved the amino acids in the corn. And nopalitos are full of complex carbs that give sustained energy and available calcium for bones, teeth, and nerves. What more could one ask from a snack food?
Tia Marta encouraging you to make and enjoy these easy and not-so-sinful treats from the desert!