Nopales, also known as cactus paddles, are a staple in Mexican cuisine and can be eaten a number of ways. This nopales recipe is made “a la Mexicana” so it’s cooked with onion, tomato and chiles – it’s one of the most authentic Mexican nopales recipe you can make and it’s bursting with flavor and packed with health benefits. Get ready to elevate your culinary game!
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Have You Ever Eaten Cactus?
Nopales (or cactus paddles) are one of the most “Mexican”, Mexican foods. So if you’ve eaten them, congratulations for venturing into the lesser known Mexican foods.
Us Mexicans grow up eating nopales, so to us they don’t seem strange at all and are almost like comfort food.
Nopales are cactus pads (some people also call them cactus leaves) that grow on prickly pear cactus.
When growing, the nopales trees not only has these edible green paddles, but it also grows edible sweet fruits right on top of the paddles. These are called prickly pear fruit, which in Mexico are known as tunas or pitayas – not to be confused with pitahayas or dragon fruit which are also a cacti fruit but grow on a different variety of cactus.
Nopales paddles are a deep green color and have small spines also called glochids. The nopal cactus pads have a crisp texture to them and once sliced and cooked they release a viscous liquid – but don’t worry it’s easy to get rid of that, we will delved into that below.
The taste of nopales is slight earthy and citrusy, it’s quite unique and very delicious. Plus nopales are also packed full of amazing health benefits.
In today’s nopales recipe you’ll learn tips on how to clean nopales as well as how to cook nopales.
I want to stress that you should never pick wild nopales unless you know exactly what variety is safe for human consumption. Additionally, always be careful when handling cactus, you really don’t want to have a spine prick your skin and get stuck. Not pleasant at all!
Nopales in Mexican Cuisine
Nopalitos have been a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries.
Fresh nopales can be eaten raw, boiled, grilled, sautéed, in soups, salads, blended and so many other variety of ways. Below are few Mexican dishes in which nopales are commonly eaten in Mexican cuisine. I really hope you try one of these delicious recipes all ready on my blog and check back as I add new nopales recipes in the coming months.
- Nopales con Huevo: Cooked with scrambled eggs but you can easily make it vegan and use a vegan egg or tofu scramble – I love this as breakfast tacos.
- Nopales con Chorizo: This is another delicious but simple recipe for nopales that can be used a taco filling or for gorditas or quesadillas.
- Ensalada de Nopales: This is a Mexican cactus salad that’s lively and super fresh to enjoy on the side of something like carne asada or with tostadas and some queso fresco.
- Jugo Verde: This is a refreshing green juice made with nopales, celery, pineapple, orange juice, and spinach. It’s delicious and very nutritious.
- Nopales a la Mexicana: This is the recipe I’m sharing down below. It’s simply sautéed nopales with onion, tomato and green chile.
- Quinoa with Nopales: This is a fusion recipe of mine and the nopales work perfectly with the quinoa.
Nopales aren’t just tasty; they’re incredibly nutritious too! Before we jump into how to clean nopales and how to cook them, let’s explore why nopales are a fantastic addition to your diet.
Health Benefits of Nopales
In Mexico nopales aren’t only consumed for their delicious flavors, but also for their countless health benefits. Here are just 11 health benefits of nopales:
- Rich in Vitamins: Nopales are loaded with vitamin C, making them great for your immune system. They also contain vitamin A, K, and B1, B2, B3 vitamins.
- Rich in Minerals: Nopales are a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron.
- Low Carb, High Fiber: If you’re watching your carb intake, nopales are a fantastic choice. They’re low in carbs and high in dietary fiber, keeping you satisfied and aiding digestion.
- Blood Sugar Regulation: In Mexico nopales have long been recommended and used to help diabetics regulate their blood sugar. It’s believed that nopales help lower blood sugar levels.
- Anti-Inflammatory Effect: Nopales have been known to have anti-inflammatory properties, making them a potential ally against various health issues to help in reducing pain and swelling.
- lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- aid in weight management
- prevent hangovers
- enhance your immunity
- Liver Support: Nopales have been used traditionally to support liver health and aid in liver conditions.
- Vegan-Friendly: If you’re following a vegan diet, nopales are a fantastic addition to your weekly meal preps. They’re versatile and satisfying.
How to Clean and Cook Nopales
If you want to make Mexican recipes that use nopales, then you first need to know how to clean the cactus paddles. It’s quite easy and with a couple precautions you can become a total pro.
You can buy fresh nopales in Mexican markets, and just like in Mexico, Mexican grocery stores in the United States have fresh cactus paddles on sale alongside other refrigerated produce.
Typically you can find the whole paddles with their spines still on as well as already cleaned paddles, and sometimes chopped nopales in plastic bags.
Unless you are going straight home and cooking those nopales that same day, I suggest that you choose the younger pads with their spines still on them. The nopales that have already had their spines removed and also those precut ones, will oxidize and go off quicker then the ones with their spines.
When we cut nopales they release a viscous liquid very similar to aloe vera or even okra. But don’t worry it’s easy getting rid of it and I’ll show you how below.
Make sure to watch the video for a full visual guide of these steps.
Step 1: Use a clean kitchen towel to wrap around the bottom narrow section of the nopal paddle. Then use a sharp knife to slice off the outer edge going all the way around.
Step 2: Using your knife angle it down so it leans slightly angled on top of the nopal. Use the knife to begin slicing off the spines, moving all across the nopal then flipping it over to do the same. Continue until all of the spines have been removed.
Step 3: Slice off the bottom narrow part of the nopal you’ve been holding on to with the kitchen towel. Then slice off any remaining spines in this section.
Step 4: Thoroughly rinse the nopal paddles, you can use paper towels to dry off excess water. Next place the nopales on a cutting board and slice. Slice into long strands to make nopal salad or into small pieces for salad or to sauté or cook as desired.
Step 5: Place the cut up nopales pieces in a medium pot then pour in enough water to cover them by a few inches. Sprinkle in a hefty pinch of salt.
Step 6: Simmer over medium-high heat until the nopales pieces have become tender and they turn a darker green color.
Step 7: Drain and rinse thoroughly – be careful not to splash yourself with the hot water. You can now use in all of your favorite recipes or weekly meals. This whole process should take you about 15-20 minutes.
Notes: If you leave the boiled nopales to sit overnight they will release some viscous liquid, it’s perfectly normal and part of eating nopales. You can simply rinse with cold water then use as desired.
Nopales a la Mexican
This Mexican nopales recipe is one of my most favorite ways to eat nopales. The reason is because it’s a very flavorful dish, makes a healthy meal, it’s easy to make and it gets rid of the viscous liquid completely. If this is your first time cooking nopales I highly suggest you start with my nopales a la Mexicana. Serve them with some homemade refried beans and warm corn tortillas – maybe a spicy salsa for a complete meal.
- nopales or cactus paddles
- white onion
- garlic clove
- chile either chile de arbol or a fresh chile like serrano peppers or milder jalapeños
- roma tomato
- olive oil
Optional Additional Ingredients: You could add some ground cumin seeds to the seasoning if you’d like. Additionally once serving you could drizzle some freshly squeezed lime juice over the nopales to make their flavor pop even more.
How to Make Nopales a la Mexicana
Step 1: Clean and boil the nopales as indicted in the instructions above. Then heat a bit of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once hot add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften.
Step 2: Add the chile pepper, minced garlic and cook until the garlic softens.
Step 3: Mix in the previously boiled nopales to the pan. Season with salt and as desired. Cook for 5 minutes.
Step 4: Add the chopped tomato, mix well then cook until the tomato begins to breakdown. Taste before serving and see if the nopales need additional salt.
Serving, Storing, and Reheating
You can serve these Mexican-style nopales as a main dish with either refried beans or frijoles de olla as a side dish. You can top them cotija cheese or serve with slices of Mexican queso fresco. Mustn’t forget the warm tortillas, either corn or homemade flour tortillas will go perfectly. A homemade red salsa is also a delicious addition to your meal. This the same way I eat my Mexican-style green beans.
To store any left overs allow them to come to room temperature then place in an airtight container. Nopales will keep fresh in the fridge for about 4 days.
Remember that after they’ve sat they will release more viscous liquid. While you can freeze nopales they really don’t retain their texture and the flavor becomes kind of bland. I suggest eating them as fresh as possible.
Reheating can be done on the stove for a couple of minutes or in the microwave.
Authentic Mexican Nopales Recipe
Nopales are a true gem in Mexican cuisine. Not only do they add a unique and delightful flavor to your dishes, but they also offer a plethora of health benefits.
Whether you’re a seasoned cook or just dipping your toes into Mexican recipes, this versatile ingredient is worth exploring.
So, grab some fresh nopales, fire up your skillet, and get ready to enjoy a healthy, delicious meal that’s bursting with flavor. Your taste buds and your body will thank you!
How to Cook Nopales and Nopales a la Mexicana Recipe
- 4 nopales cactus paddles
- 1½ Tablespoons olive oil
- ½ small white onion sliced into slivers
- ½ teaspoons salt
- 4 chile de arbol or 1 to 2 serrano peppers or jalapenos
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 2 large roma tomatoes chopped
How To Clean The Nopales
- Use a clean kitchen towel to wrap around the bottom narrow section of the nopal paddle. Then use a sharp knife to slice off the outer edge going all the way around.
- Using your knife angle it down so it leans slightly angled on top of the nopal. Use the knife to begin slicing off the spines, moving all across the nopal then flipping it over to do the same. Continue until all of the spines have been removed.
- Slice off the bottom narrow part of the nopal you’ve been holding on to with the kitchen towel. Then slice off any remaining spines in this section.
- Thoroughly rinse the nopal paddles, you can use paper towels to dry off excess water. Next place the nopales on a cutting board and slice. Slice into long strands to make nopal salad or into small pieces for salad or to sauté or cook as desired.
- Place the cut up nopales pieces in a medium pot then pour in enough water to cover them by a few inches. Sprinkle in a hefty pinch of salt.
- Simmer over medium-high heat until the nopales pieces have become tender and they turn a darker green color.
- Drain and rinse thoroughly – be careful not to splash yourself with the hot water. You can now use in all of your favorite recipes or weekly meals. This whole process should take you about 15-20 minutes.
Nopales a la Mexicana Recipe
- Clean and boil the nopales as indicted in the instructions above. Then heat a bit of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Once hot add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften.
- Add the chile pepper, minced garlic and cook until the garlic softens.
- Mix in the previously boiled nopales to the pan. Season with salt and as desired. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the chopped tomato, mix well then cook until the tomato begins to breakdown. Taste before serving and see if the nopales need additional salt.
Nancy Lopez is a food blogger and author of the cookbook Mexican Tamales Made Meatless. Born in Mexico, raised in the US, and currently living in Southern Mexico, she has followed a meatless diet for almost 10 years. It is her passion and mission to share all she has learned about vegan Mexican cooking and vegetarian Mexican recipes. Mexican Made Meatless is a blog dedicated to preserving the authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine just without the meat. It’s a place to celebrate Mexican culture and all it’s delightfully delicious traditional foods. Read more…