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Last Chance Foods: Say Yes to Nopales

The delicious side of cactus

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Some people like a shot of espresso to get the morning started. How about a quick slug of cactus slime instead? That’s the drink of choice at some juice stands in Mexico.

“A lot of people think that the slime is really nutritious,” said Lesley Téllez, a food writer who runs the culinary tourism company Eat Mexico. “I’ve seen some places where… they just sell the slime, you know, on it’s own. You can take it to go, and... have it for a quick morning pick-me-up.”

Known as “baba,” or the Spanish word for “drool,” that clear ooze comes from nopales, or prickly pear cactus paddles. That type of cactus is a popular in Mexican cuisine, and tastes slightly acidic, with a raw texture that’s slightly crunchier than green beans.

Nopales are available throughout the city in grocery stores and bodegas catering to Mexican communities. Téllez likes to get her nopales and other Mexican staples from Corona’s Farm in Queens. She admits that she prefers to get the ones that have already been cleaned, since getting rid of the cactus spines can be a tricky operation.

That’s not to say it can’t be done at home. It just takes a fair degree of caution and patience.

First, Téllez wraps her non-dominant hand in dish towels. Then she hangs on to the nopales at the narrow end. “You definitely need to hold onto it, for sure,” Téllez added. “You don’t want to be whacking away at it with a knife while it’s sitting there on the cutting board. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Then with a very sharp knife in her dominant hand, she gingerly begins shaving off the nopales spines. “You want to slice away at the spines as easy as you can without having thorns sort of flying around, so I go very slowly,” Téllez said. Do that until it’s prickle-free — or just buy the nopales that have already been cleaned and save yourself the trouble.

(Photo: Lesley Téllez/Courtesy of Lesley Téllez)

Once relieved of its spines, there are a number of ways to prepare the cactus. Boil it lightly and put it in taco. “Another really simple way you can cook them is to grill them,” Téllez said. “So you just take a cleaned paddle, and you score it. And you sprinkle it with some salt and pepper and some olive oil, and you grill it in on a really high heat.”

If you’re wary of the slimy texture, Téllez has an entertaining, if messy, method of de-oozing the nopales. It involves cutting up the cleaned cactus and rubbing salt into the flesh.

“It’s actually really fun to do if you have, like, 10 minutes in your kitchen,” she said. “So you rub the salt into the flesh and what it does is it unleashes all of this slime from the cactus so your hands get really slimy — which is fun, for me.”

The result of that salt scrub is a raw vegetable that can be added to salads or as a garnish. “You’re left with this really crunchy, raw, bright green, beautiful vegetable,” Téllez said.

For those who enjoy the texture of cooked nopales, check out Téllez’s recipe below for Stuffed Nopales with Black Beans, Cheese, and Roasted Red Pepper.

Also, if you’re interested in a drink to serve for Cinco de Mayo on Monday, check out this recipe from Saveur for Prickly Pear Margaritas. Get started now, since you need to find prickly pears (the fruit of the same cactus that produces nopales) and soak them in tequila for two days.

Stuffed Nopales with Black Beans, Cheese, and Roasted Red Pepper Recipe 
By Lesley Téllez, The Mija Chronicles 
(Photo: Stuffed nopales/Lesley Téllez) 

Makes: 4 servings

Note: When buying cactus, make sure the paddles are bright green and not brown in spots. Many grocery stores sell them already cleaned, but sometimes upon further inspection, they’ve got a few spines. You’ll want to remove those with a sharp knife — the LA Times has a good tutorial on how to clean nopales. It’s best to use the cactus as soon as you can, and don’t store it in a plastic bag in your refrigerator as that will create moisture and make the paddles go bad. The cactus can be boiled a day ahead of time and stored in an airtight container. If you don’t have bean broth, you can use water or chicken/vegetable broth.

Ingredients

For the cactus: 

  • Kosher salt
  • Half a red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
  • 8 medium cactus paddles

For the beans:

  • 2 cups cooked black beans (or a 14 ounce can), with about ¾ cup bean broth
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • About 1 tablespoon canola, grapeseed, or peanut oil
  • 1/4 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped canned chipotle pepper in adobo
  • For the toppings:
  • 1 1/4 cups (about 3 ounces) grated mild white cheese, such as Monterey Jack
  • 1 red, yellow, or orange pepper, roasted, peeled and sliced into thin strips
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Instructions

For the cactus:

Fill a large bowl halfway with ice water and set aside. Fill a large saucepan about halfway with well salted water and add the onion and garlic. Bring water to a boil over high heat, then add the cactus paddles. (The water should just about cover the cactus.) Cook until the paddles turn a khaki-green color and are slightly soft, about 3 minutes.

Remove cactus from boiling water and immediately place in the ice water bath to halt the cooking. While the cactus paddles cool, heat the oven to 425°F (or to broil) and arrange a rack at least 6-inches from the heat source. When cactus is cool, remove from ice water, pat dry, and discard water.

For the beans:

Stir beans together with cumin, Mexican oregano, salt, and ground black pepper. Heat a medium frying pan over medium heat and add the oil. When oil is shimmering, add the onion and cook, stirring a few times, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and chopped chipotle, stirring until the oil turns a lovely reddish color and you start to smell a chili-garlic aroma.

In one quick pour, add the beans and about half of the broth to the pan. Using a bean masher — in Mexico this is called an aplastador (I use a wooden one just like these Rancho Gordo bean mashers) — or the bottom of a cup, mash the beans into a paste. Add more broth if the beans look too dry and take care not to overheat the beans or they’ll dry out too quickly. Once you have your desired consistency, cook the beans for about 5 minutes, stirring often so they don’t stick, until flavors combine.

To assemble nopales, line up cactus paddles on a rimmed baking sheet. Add a thin layer of beans to each cactus paddle and sprinkle evenly with cheese. Bake until cheese is golden-brown and bubbly and cactus is knife tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add roasted red peppers in a pretty little mound in the middle to garnish, and top with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro.

Guests:

Lesley Téllez

Hosted by:

Amy Eddings

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Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.

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