Springtime is when the world bursts forth in color and blooms anew. Even the spiny old desert cactus pops out some fresh new pads, green and tender, and delicious.
Making your own nopalitos or stewed prickly pear cactus (scientific name Opuntia ficus-indicus) pads at home is pretty easy. Many markets that cater to Hispanic customers stock fresh nopalitos in the produce aisle around Eastertime, and year round nopalitos (also called nopal or nopales) can be found in jars in the Hispanic food section.
As a friendly reminder, if you decide to harvest your cactus fresh, remember that the spines are not edible. Use metal tongs to select and harvest the most tender, new cactus pads, then trim off all of the spines, washing the cleaned pads well under running water. Gloves are highly recommended.
Nopalitos is a very special dish for me and my family, a dish that we always include in Eastertime gatherings. In my neck of the woods, every household has a different favorite nopalito recipe. Some families make nopalitos with dried shrimp, others make spicy nopalitos with chile. Of course, there are fantasy concoctions like nopalito cocktails or nopalitos fritters, but those dishes were invented by people with too much time on their hands.
If you have never eaten nopalitos, the texture is reminiscent of green beans, with a touch of lemony flavor. High in fiber, Vitamin C, A and valuable antioxidants, nopalitos are fat free and sodium free.
A few plain boiled nopalitos would be great tossed into a salad, or even stirred into a stuffing mix. As a kid, we mostly enjoyed them mixed into scrambled eggs, then rolled into a fresh hot flour breakfast taco. We joke that cactus is the original breakfast of champions!!
Below is a very simple traditional recipe for nopalitos. Serve them as a side with your Easter ham or turkey, or bring them to the family barbecue for everyone to sample.
- 1 lb bagged fresh nopalitos, washed, or a 30oz jar nopalitos, drained and rinsed
- 2 tbls vegetable oil
- ¼ cup sliced onions
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
(Skip this first step if you are using jarred nopalitos as they are already chopped and cooked)
Chop nopalitos into 1/4” x 2” sticks. Place the fresh chopped nopalitos in a 2 qt saucepan and cover with water. Bring the nopalitos to a boil and cook for 10 minutes, until the nopalitos turn from bright to drab green. The water will take on a gooey texture. Drain the water by pouring the nopalitos through a mesh colander, and rinse under cold water. Allow to drain completely.
Using the same 2 qt saucepan, return it to the stove, add the vegetable oil and heat. Add the onions, and sauté until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato and garlic, and continue to sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add the cooked nopalitos, season with salt and pepper, and cover, simmering for 3-5 minutes. Add a tablespoon of water during cooking if the nopalitos seem dry.