How to make Nopal Salad (Spicy Mexican Cactus Salad)

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Nopal cactus salad, called ensalada de nopales in Mexico, is a spicy dish made from sliced nopal cactus leaves and a smattering of seasonings associated with Mexican food like onion and cilantro. It pairs well with meat, chicken, fish and seafood dishes and also works well as a taco filling or tostada garnish. Some natural health practitioners believe nopal leaves have properties that can help fight high cholesterol and diabetes. You can find ensalada de nopales sold as street food throughout Mexico but will likely need to prepare your own in the U.S.

Things You'll Need

  • 1 1/2 lb. nopal cactus leaves
  • Paring knife
  • 2 tbsp. neutral vegetable oil such as grapeseed or canola
  • Large saucepan
  • 2/3 cup cool water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt plus more to taste
  • Colander
  • 1 medium diced onion
  • 2 medium diced tomatoes
  • 3 cloves pressed garlic
  • 2/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 serrano chile pepper, seeded and diced
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • Medium bowl
  • Crumbled fresh Mexican cheese

Preparing the Nopal Leaves

  • Peel nopal leaves slowly and carefully with a paring knife. Be careful not to prick yourself as you cut. Discard the peeling.

  • Cut nopal leaves into 1/4-inch slices, and place in the large saucepan. Cover the nopal with 2/3 cup cool water, and add 1/2 tsp. salt.

  • Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat.

  • Cover the pan and turn heat down to medium low. Allow the cactus to steam the simmering water for 15 to 20 minutes until it reaches the texture of crisp cooked green beans or bell peppers.

  • Remove the pan from heat, and pour through a metal colander. Run cool water over the colander to stop the cactus from cooking further. Drain, and place the cooked nopal in your refrigerator to chill for about three hours before putting the salad together.

Compiling the Salad

  • Combine 1 1/2 lb. cooked nopal cactus pieces, 2 tbsp. neutral vegetable oil such as grapeseed or canola, one medium diced onion, two medium diced tomatoes, three cloves pressed garlic, 2/3 cup chopped cilantro and one sliced, seeded serrano pepper in a medium bowl. If you like, mix in 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice.

  • Add salt and black pepper to taste, checking every few seconds until you reach the desired flavor.

  • Cover the bowl and place in your refrigerator.

  • Leave the salad in the refrigerator for about one hour to allow flavors to blend.

  • Remove and serve as a filling, garnish or side dish with your Mexican-themed meal topped with crumbled fresh Mexican cheese such as panela or queso fresco as a garnish.

Tips & Warnings

  • Buy nopal leaves at your local farmers' market or Mexican grocery. A sales clerk may be willing to peel the nopal leaves if you request assistance.
  • Though onions are authentic, you can attain a more delicate flavor by substituting a couple of diced shallots.
  • Some Mexican cooks insist on substituting cilantro with fresh chopped Mexican oregano. This can be difficult to find in U.S. markets, but feel free to use it instead of cilantro if you happen to find it.
  • Do not overcook your nopal leaves, as they will develop a mushy, unpleasant texture not unlike glue paste.

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  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images
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