Cactus Makes Good Eating

Home chefs can try nopal in a recipe from Osar Michel of Tacos Oscar.


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Oscar Michel describes the taste of nopales as tart and tangy with hint of bitterness and some crunch.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

They’re spiky, potentially slimy, and can be time consuming to prep. So the uninitiated could be forgiven for skipping over cactus pads in favor of less intimidating sections of the produce aisle.

Be brave, home chefs, says Grant Brians of Heirloom Organic Farms in Hollister. Nopales, as they are known in Mexico where they are most commonly consumed, are the flat pads of cacti (most often prickly pear but also other species) found throughout Mexico and the southwest United States and California. Brians started growing nopales a dozen years ago at his Santa Clara Valley farms and has become an advocate ever since, offering free samples and words of encouragement to farmers market shoppers when they’re in season, roughly May through September. 

 “I would say 95 percent of the people I sell to have never consumed them, so you’ll hear a lot of, ‘Wait that’s cactus; how can you eat a cactus?’ Then I’ll take a nopal, cut a thin slice, and hand them a sample, and almost everyone has the same reaction: ‘Wow, I had no idea it could taste that good.’”

Oscar Michel, co-owner of Tacos Oscar, grew up in a Mexican household in which he ate nopales nearly every day. (His parents actually grew and continue to grow their own cacti.) He loves the taste, and he also values their versatility. At Tacos Oscar — an East Bay pop-up set to open its first permanent location in Oakland’s Temescal district at the end of the summer — he often incorporates them in a simple, multi-use nopal salad that he enlists as a topping for tacos and tostadas, a filling for frittatas, or on its own as a side dish.

Nopales do have a reputation for sliminess, but that can be avoided by either eating them raw, limiting exposure to heat if grilling or sautéing, or thoroughly rinsing them with water when you do cook them for longer. And what about the spikes? Those can be avoided, too. Brian’s Heirloom Organic Farms removes them prior to bringing cactus pads to market, while Michel points out that many stores, including Berkeley Bowl, and nearly any Mexican grocery sell nopales pre-cleaned and cut. (If you do find them uncleaned at the market or harvest them yourself, there’s no getting around it: You’ll have to carefully carve out all those spikes.)

When buying them whole, Brians said to look for teardrop-shaped pads between 6 inches and 1 foot in length and, most critically, a thickness between 3/8 and ¾ of an inch — the thicker they are, the tougher and more fibrous they become. Once purchased, pads can be kept for several weeks if stored in a cool dark place. As for how to enjoy it, well, that’s entirely up to you.

 

Tacos Oscar’s Nopal Salad from Oscar Michel

 

Step one is cooking nopales.

1 pound bag of pre-cut and cleaned nopales

4-5 sprigs cilantro

1/4 white onion whole or sliced

1 crushed garlic clove

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Just enough water to top nopales in a saucepan

 

Bring a saucepan of water and salt to a boil, then add nopales, cilantro, onion, garlic and vinegar. Simmer nopales on medium heat until they turn olive green in color, or about 15 minutes. Drain into a colander and rinse with cold water to get as much of the sliminess off as possible. The nopales will keep oozing slime after this, so a second rinse may be necessary. Pick out cilantro sprigs, onion, and garlic.

 

Step two is assembling the nopal salad.

1 pound cooked nopales, rinsed and cooled

1/4 head purple cabbage, finely shredded or sliced

1/4 red onion finely sliced

1 diced tomato if in season

2 cloves garlic finely diced

1 jalapeño de-seeded, finely sliced

chopped cilantro to taste

juice of two limes

tablespoon of olive oil

salt to taste

 

In a large bowl, assemble the ingredients and season to taste. Use as a side salad, on tacos, in scrambled eggs, or in a frittata. Smear this on a tortilla with black beans, top with nopal salad, crumbled queso fresco and roasted tomato salsa. Simple and nourishing.

 

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