Yes to Nopales

One of the main benefits of the years we lived in Mexico was the ubiquitous array of healthy foods. Though I was raised on real food, this experience opened my eyes to the way we are supposed to eat. No matter what the season, there was a bountiful selection of fresh, colorful produce available at the open air markets, known as mercados.

Filled with lots of people chatting and laughing, sharing stories and filling their reusable bags with gobs of produce, nuts, seeds, containers of homemade moles as well as meats and fresh seafood, shopping at the mercado remains one of my favorite things to do. As I have my "favorites" at the farmers market, I similarly had a select group of trusting and friendly vendors I bought from in Zihuatanejo.

They always directed me to what was the freshest and best produce at the moment and would always cheerfully add a few extra things in my bag "just because" or give me a significant discount. We developed a friendly relationship and would, often times, share thoughts on what to do with the produce and even exchange recipes and cooking tips.

One lady knew how much I loved nopales (cactus pads) and when she would see me coming, she would turn on her sincerest smile, which was missing a few teeth, and give me a special look that said, "Have I got something for you today, amiga." I would hustle over to her and she would hand me a bag of nopales which we would turn into a fresh juice of pina y nopal.

Though we loved this jugo de pina y nopal for digestive reasons, the traditional way to eat nopales in Mexico is in a salad. Nopales are extremely healthy, loaded with fiber and antioxidants and can be found on nearly every dinner table and restaurant menu throughout Mexico.

I have made a nopales salad before but because the recipe called for boiling the nopales, I swore I would never do that again. (I also made nopales and eggs a few years ago which required boiling the cactus as well.)

Just as we have evolved from boiling beets, boiling nopales seemingly accentuates the sliminess, which is not a good thing. When I stumbled upon fresh nopales at the farmers market recently, I had nopales salad on my mind but knew I needed to find a better recipe that would be slime-free.

After scouring online recipes, the first one that populated was from Williams-Sonoma and it was this recipe I decided to try. I liked it because it calls for using a heavy skillet and I chose my trusty cast iron skillet to saute the nopales with onions and garlic. After sauteing for 15 minutes with a cover on the pan, the sliminess had completely disappeared and I was thrilled. The nopales, onions and garlic had caramelized nicely and were incredibly tender but still had some tooth to them.

The addition of oregano to the vinaigrette provided another layer of flavor to this classic Mexican side dish, while adding feta instead of the traditional queso fresco or cotija cheese added just the right amount of tang to make this dish sing.

Served warm so the feta melts just the slightest, now you can say yes to nopales.

Buen provecho! 
Nopales Salad
The Cowgirl Gourmet slightly adapted a Williams-Sonoma recipe for this spectacular dish

Print recipe

Having lived in Mexico for years, I have had my fair share of nopales salad. But, this recipe, is by far the best I have ever had. I love that the nopales, onions and garlic caramelizes and the addition of feta brings a tangy and slightly salty element to the dish. The use of oregano in the vinaigrette finishes the salad and stamps it with Mexican authenticity. Serve it warm and let the flavors sing.

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, diced
3-4 nopales (cactus) pads, cleaned and cut into 1/4" pieces
1/2 white onion, diced
1 jalapeno or serrano, thinly sliced
Kosher salt, to taste
In a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron), place over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add the oil and cook the garlic until it becomes fragrant, 30 seconds or so. Stir in the nopales, onions and chiles and stir well to combine and coat with the oil.
Cover and let cook until the cactus is tender and the onions are caramelized, about 15 minutes. During this time, stir occasionally, and right before your eyes, you will watch the sliminess disappear.
See the sliminess? With cooking, it will completely dissipate.
After 15 minutes, uncover the skillet and continue cooking another 10-15 minutes until everything appears softened and golden brown. Season with salt, stir again and remove from the heat.
For the dressing:
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/8 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of sugar

While the nopales are cooking, make the vinaigrette in a small bowl. Whisk together the oregano, mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and sugar and set aside until ready to serve.

For the salad:
3/4 cup ripe tomatoes, diced (I used cherry or grape tomatoes and sliced in quarters or halves)
1/4 cup cilantro, minced, plus more for garnish
3 green onions, thinly sliced, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled, plus more for garnish

In a large bowl, place the diced tomatoes, cilantro, green onions and feta cheese. Add the just cooked and still nice and warm nopales, onions and garlic and stir well to combine. Pour the dressing over the top and toss gently to mix.

Serve immediately. Refrigerate any leftovers.

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