Nopalitos, Cactus with Red Chile
Nopal, cactus, is delicious and nutritious. The diminutive form of nopal, nopalitos, signals that it is one of the most endeared and important Mexican indigenous foods.
Ascribed the scientific name, Opuntia ficus-indica, nopalitos are native to central and southern Mexico. Cactus spread from there throughout the Americas and were taken to Europe by Spaniards in the 1500s. Nopalitos are a staple in family Mexican American restaurants throughout Texas, who serve them to discerning and demanding clients. Yuli Sandoval, chef/owner of Alex’s Tacos in Seguin, Texas, knows about demanding customers. She serves only fresh nopalitos, cleaned on site, and says that her customers will immediately reject canned nopales. “El sabor de lata!” she exclaims. The flavor of a can!
I think cactus paddles stand to become a trendy super food, partly because of an increasing number of medical studies that demonstrate that nopales can lower cholesterol levels. As early as 2003 the journal, Nuclear Medicine Review: Central and Eastern Europe, published a study that demonstrated that by eating cactus, patients with high blood cholesterol levels were able to improve the liver’s regulation of LDL (bad)cholesterol.
Scientists also think that among all the plants on our planet, nopalitos may contain the highest levels of Betalains. That’s the chemical that actually helps to reduce blood glucose levels, thus aiding against diabetes. Nopales are super rich in antioxidants.
Families all over south Texas already know about these health benefits because over generations, the oral traditions and cooking practices passed on this knowledge, from mother to son, from uncle to niece. There are many family practices that are just simply done, with no one ever writing about them, such as: soaking cactus in a glass of water and then drinking the enriched water; or combining the cactus with chiles, as in this recipe, to add extra vitamins C, A and other important nutrients.
The nopal cactus is great for health, but I’m including it here because it’s delicious, sabroso.
Recipe for Cactus, Nopalitos with Red Chiles
Ingredients (serves 6)
For the Nopalitos
3 cups fresh nopales (cactus paddles), 1/2-inch squares.
3/4 cup white onion, small dice
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 cup water
1 Tbs canola oil or other vegetable oil
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped, for garnish (optional)
1/4 pound queso fresco, crumbled, for garnish (optional)
For the Chile Paste
1 garlic clove
3 ancho chiles, cleaned, seeded, and deveined
3 guajillo chiles, cleaned, seeded, and deveined
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons canola oil or other vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
For the Chile Paste
1. To devein the chiles, first lay the chile flat on a cutting board and, using a paring knife, cut a slit lengthwise. Grab the chile with one hand and with the other remove the stem along with the bunch of seeds still attached to it. Open the chile along the slit and remove the remaining seeds and veins.
2. In a large saucepan, cover the cleaned chiles with water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the chiles steep for 15 minutes so that they rehydrate and become tender.
3. Drain the chiles, discarding the water. Let the chiles cool a bit, and then place the chiles in a blender along with the garlic, cumin, and salt. Blend to a very fine paste, adding 1/2–1 cup water as needed.
4. In a saucepan, heat 1 Tbs canola oil and add the chile paste from the blender. It will splatter, so take care. Cook for 8-10 minutes until the color deepens and the paste thickens. Set aside.
To Cook the Nopalitos
5. To remove the spines from the cactus, first cover your working surface with paper. Hold the cactus paddle with tongs, and use a sharp knife or a potato peeler to slice around the edge of the cactus, removing all the spines on the edges, then lay the paddle flat and scrape the rest off. Remove only the little bumps where the spines are growing. The other parts of the cactus paddle will remain unpeeled. When finished, roll up the newspaper carefully and discard.
6. Rinse the cactus paddles, then slice them into 1/2″ squares.
7. Heat 1 Tbs canola or other vegetable oil in a skillet on medium heat, and cook the cactus squares for 13–15 minutes. Add the onion and cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3/4 cup chile paste, 1/2 cup water, and combine well. Cover and cook on low for 5 minutes. Add more water if the chile is too thick. Adjust the salt.
Serve hot with corn tortillas. Garnish with cilantro and queso fresco.