Know Your Nopales

Living in Mexico afforded me many new reasons to appreciate life--from the importance of being truly hospitable and humble to the value of friendship, and the deep-rooted cultural traditions taught me more than I can express in words. One of the most magical lessons that I took away from my adventure was how brujas blancas (good witches), curanderas (herb doctors), doctores (medical doctors) as well as native chefs from across the country showed me that food is healing and can cure many ills.

And so it is with nopales, cactus leaves--with the thorns removed, of course. We consumed large amounts of nopales while in Mexico as it is attributed to helping with digestive issues. Anyone who has traveled between the two countries knows the value in this medicinal find. These prickly pads are loaded with Vitamins A, B complex and C. And the questionable mucus-like substance the cactus pad is filled with is chock full of soluble dietary fiber!

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Each morning in Zihuatanejo, we began our desayuno (breakfast) with a tall, cold glass of jugo de pina con nopal (pineapple juice with nopal). Blended together, the combination is refreshing, revitalizing and you knew it was doing your belly good. We also frequently enjoyed ensalada de nopal (cactus salad) as well as nopales con huevos (cactus with eggs).

When the August/September issue of Saveur arrived in the mail, I immediately felt flush because the entire issue is dedicated to everything Mexico. For this, the magazine brought in four experts on Mexican cuisine--Rick Bayless, Hugo Ortega, Roberto Santibanez (who, at one time, was the chef at our resort in Mexico) and a friend and local celebrity--Ileana de la Vega of the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for a story I wrote on salsas. We had so much in common and we shared an immediate bond.

As I savored (pun intended) the magazine and read all about the distinct differences of the food in various regions, I was reminded of so many of the amazing culinary experiences we relished with good friends, great wine and impeccable service. I even learned of a dish I knew nothing about--pescado encarcelado (fish stuffed with pico de gallo). Of all the recipes featured in this issue celebrating the very diverse dishes throughout Mexico, there was one recipe that stood out from all of the rest.

Agua de pina con nopal. Being a connoisseur of aguas frescas--this was a standard component of our daily employee lunch that changed every day and it was my favorite part--I had never heard of agua de pina con nopal. Agua de pina, absolutely, but never the combination of the two and I thought it brilliant! 

Since we still participate in the morning ritual of our beloved pineapple juice with nopales, I thought we'd love this refreshing combination that could be sipped anytime of the day. It's easy to make and delicious, and no one will ever know it's good for them.

Buen provecho!

Agua de Pina con Nopal (Pineapple and Cactus Drink)
The Cowgirl Gourmet adapted this recipe from the August/September 2012 issue of Saveur magazine

Print recipe

Walk into any restaurant in Mexico or down any calle (street) and you'll be tasked with choosing which agua fresca you want. Agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower), agua de sandia (watermelon), agua de melon (cantaloupe), horchata (rice) and the list goes on. This recipe was completely new to me and did not disappoint. Refreshing, delicious and easy to make, I bet this green drink won't last long in your house either.

Makes 4-6 glasses

1/3 cup Ideal (or sugar)
1 cup nopal, cleaned of spikes and roughly chopped
1 cup pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 large apple, unpeeled, cored and chopped
3 1/2 cups of water

In a blender, combine sweetener of choice, nopal, pineapple, apple and water and puree for two minutes until smooth.

Pour the liquid through a fine strainer into a pitcher, discarding the any leftover pulp. Chill in the refrigerator.

To serve, pour over ice and enjoy.

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