I posted a Twitpic this afternoon to help lure my dear friend and neighbor, Ben, to my apartment for lunch. I made cactus salad and tortilla soup for us, but Ben was taking his sweet time and my soup broth was getting cold.
My photo caught the eye of Sheena instead, who spied the plates of cactus salad. She's recently come home from a trip to Playa Del Carmen where she ate cactus every day. Sheena's still craving it and wanted to know where I buy it, and if I could recommend a recipe.
I buy fresh cactus paddles year-round at Cub Foods in Fridley. If there are a lot of Latinos in your neighborhood, chances are you can find it at the Cub closest to you, as well. If your local mercado sells produce, they will most likely have cactus, too. The mercado in my neighborhood on 18th & Central actually cleans, cuts and bags them for you, but I don't mind a little extra effort and it's quick work.
To clean cactus, run a sharp knife (a paring knife is great, my Wusthof 6-inch sandwich knife is a badass here) all the way around the paddle to remove the edges. Then, run the knife flat along each side to remove the rest of the spines. It's been a decade or two since I've fileted a fish, but I recall the movement being similar. Rinse the de-spined paddles and you're ready to cook. For the visual, this short YouTube video is a perfect demonstration.
Cactus is incredibly nutritious, full of fiber and lowers the glycemic effect of meals. It's an abundant food source and can be prepared in endless ways. I have a few favorites, but here is a basic salad. I like to make a batch and keep it covered in the fridge; the roommate and I nibble at it, little plate at a time, for a couple of days until it's gone. She likes to scoop it up with fresh corn tortillas. If I have any feta crumbles in the fridge, I'll top my salad with a spoonful.
Ensalada de Nopales (Cactus Salad)
© 2011 by Alexis McKinnis
Yields about 5 cups
4 large cactus paddles, cleaned and cut into 1/2" x 2" strips (about 4 cups)
1 whole serrano chile, slit on one side
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
pinch baking soda
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 serrano chile, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped to make 1/3 cup
1/4 cup high-quality cider vinegar (I prefer Bragg's)
1/4 cup sunflower or canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a stock pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add cactus strips, whole serrano, garlic cloves and pinch of baking soda. Boil 20-25 minutes, until cactus is tender. Drain and rinse under cold water, and discard the whole serrano. Pat excess water with paper towels. In a large bowl, combine cactus and garlic with all other ingredients and toss well. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.
You'll notice that fresh cactus has a slightly slimy texture to it, like okra. It also must be cooked thoroughly to get rid of the slime, and that pinch of baking soda helps immensely.
Cilantro haters: Fresh oregano is also delicious in this salad.
If you're in a pinch for time or can't find fresh cactus paddles, you should be able to find a jar of Doña María prepared nopalitos at the grocery store. Be sure to discard the cooked onion and chile in the jar, rinse the cactus thoroughly to get rid of some of the brine, then go easy on the salt.
As I get more recipe testing done, I'll post more things to do with cactus, including my absolute favorite (and the one that brings all the boys to my yard), cactus tacos.