This is an authentic Mexican cactus leaves salad or Ensalada de nopales, as it is called in Spanish. Nopales are a staple in Mexican cuisine and are widely used in salsas, tacos, salads, or stews.
What are nopales
Nopales, the edible fleshy green pads of the nopal cactus, are a common ingredient in central and arid regions of Mexico. These pads come with spines that require careful removal before consumption.
In Mexican markets, nopales are typically sold already de-spined, or vendors will remove the spines for you on the spot. The process of spine removal involves scraping off the prickles while leaving the outer green layer as intact as possible.
Opt for fresh nopales that have already had their spines removed. You can typically find these at Mexican grocery stores in the US, where they're often sold cleaned and sliced. If you find nopales with spines, make sure to use heavy-duty gloves and a sharp knife to scrape them off.
Buying whole nopales and cutting them to your desired size is a good practice, as pre-cut ones in bags can lose their juice quickly. While you can find canned or bottled nopales, fresh ones are preferable for this salad due to their superior taste.
Nopales, or cactus leaves, are incredibly hydrating and packed with vitamins and minerals. Typically, they are cooked before being incorporated into recipes. Their flavor resembles that of green beans once cooked.
In the United States, fresh nopales can be found in Mexican grocery stores, although canned versions are also available. Nopales have a gel-like texture on the inside, known as "baba" in Spanish, due to their high soluble fiber content.
The fiber in nopales is believed to not only aid in digestion and relieve constipation but also contribute to lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Given these benefits, nopales are considered a healthy and beneficial food choice.
Slim-Free Nopales: A Step-by-Step Guide to Removing the Goo
I hear you. Many people avoid nopales because of the slime the leaves contain. As mentioned earlier, this sliminess is simply a result of the water and fiber content in the leaves. However, there are various methods to prepare nopales and eliminate the slime.
Boiling: Similar to green beans, you can boil nopales in a pot of salted water. After approximately 10 minutes, they should become tender. Rinse well after removing them from the water.
Pat dry using paper towels, and they're ready for your recipe. Be careful not to overcook and rinse excessively, as it can result in a loss of color and nutritional value.
Grilling: Grilling is another excellent method to prepare nopales, especially for inclusion in tacos with grilled meats. After de-thorning, make five slits from the edge, stopping about 2 inches from the base.
The result should resemble a hand with fingers. Grill the nopales on a lightly oiled rack directly over the fire until they lighten in color and develop some brown spots. Grilling for about four minutes on each side should suffice.
Saute: Heat oil in a heavy pan and cook the nopales on low heat, covered. Stir occasionally until they're almost tender and noticeably juicy. Uncover the pan and continue cooking until all the sticky slime evaporates.
Ingredients for ensalada de nopalitos
- Nopales: or cactus leaves are the primary ingredient in this salad. They are fleshy, green, and offer a unique, slightly tangy flavor, similar to green beans once cooked.
- Tomatoes: Fresh tomatoes add a juicy, sweet-tart flavor to the salad. They also provide color and texture, enhancing the salad's overall appeal.
- Onions: Use white or yellow onion. However, green onions, or scallions, have a milder taste compared to regular ones. They add a mild crunch and a hint of onion flavor without being overpowering.
- Cilantro: Also known as coriander, it adds a fresh, slightly citrusy flavor to the salad. It's a common herb in Mexican cuisine. It could be replaced with parsley, but the flavor of the salad will be different.
- Lime juice: Adds a tangy, fresh citrus flavor that balances the other ingredients. It also helps in marinating the cactus leaves, reducing their natural sliminess. Some recipes use red wine vinegar instead of lime or lemon juice.
- Dried oregano: Mexican oregano has a more robust, slightly citrusy flavor compared to its Mediterranean counterpart. It lends a depth of flavor to the salad.
- Vegetable oil: Used for dressing the salad, it helps blend and harmonize the flavors of the various ingredients. Olive oil is also a good option.
- Cheese: Use crumbled queso Anejo or queso Cotija. These are Mexican cheeses variety. Queso Anejo and Cotija are hard, crumbly, and have a strong, salty flavor. Feta can be used instead.
- Optional ingredients for serving: Lettuce, chiles jalapeños in escabeche, and more chopped onion.
How to make nopales salad
Step 1. Cook the nopales. Choose any method already described in the article. They should have the texture of a cooked green bean, not too soft, with a little bit of bite to it, like the green beans. When the cactus leaves are cooked, remove them from the hot water and let them cool down.
Step 2. Chop the rest of the ingredients. While the nopales are cooking, slice and chop the rest of the ingredients, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro.
3. Assemble the salad. In a salad bowl, place the cactus leaves, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. Add salt to your taste, squeeze lime over them or some vinegar, and a little bit of vegetable oil (I used olive oil).
Sprinkle crumbled queso anejo over the salad and serve with grilled meats, frijoles de olla(Mexican beans), tacos, scrambled eggs, etc. If you do not have queso Anejo, some crumbled feta cheese or queso cotija works as well.
How to store
Ensalada de nopales can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. Choose an airtight container that is large enough to accommodate the salad. Alternatively, you can use a sealable plastic container or a covered bowl.
It's best to consume it within 2-3 days for optimal freshness and taste. Freezing is not recommended for salads that contain delicate ingredients like tomatoes and cilantro, as they can become mushy when thawed.
I hope you make the nopales salad recipe. It is easy, delicious, and super healthy. If you are also a vegan or a vegetarian, this recipe could be good for you as well. Enjoy!
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Authentic Mexican Cactus Leaves Salad (Ensalada De Nopales)
- 3-4 medium cactus leaves cleaned of spines
- 2-3 fresh medium tomatoes diced
- 2-3 green onions chopped
- 1 bunch of cilantro chopped
- juice from 1 lime
- salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- ¼ cup crumbled Queso Anejo or queso cotija or Feta
Optional for serving:
- chiles jalapeños in escabeche
- chopped onions
- Clean the cactus leaves of spines and wash them very well.
- Slice the nopales thin and put them in a pot with water to cover them. Add ½ teaspoon salt.
- Cook the leaves on medium high heat until tender, for about 15-20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, chop the green onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Set them aside.
- When nopales are cooked, remove them from the stove, drain the water and place the vegetables in cold icy water. When cool, use them for the salad.
- In a salad bowl, place the cactus leaves, onion, tomatoes, cilantro and dried Mexican oregano.
- Squeeze the juice of the lime over the salad. Add oil. Taste for salt and pepper and mix everything together.
- Sprinkle crumbled cheese over and serve. Optional, place the salad on a bed of lettuce and serve with extra jalapenos in escabeche, for a more traditional flair.
- It goes very well with grilled meat, cooked beans, in eggs, tacos etc.
- Boiling: Similar to green beans, you can boil nopales in a pot of salted water. After approximately 10 minutes, they should become tender. Rinse them well after removing from water. Pat dry using paper towels, and they're ready for your recipe. Be careful not to overcook and rinse excessively as it can result in a loss of color and nutritional value.
- Grilling: Grilling is another excellent method to prepare nopales, especially for inclusion in tacos with grilled meats. After de-thorning, make five slits from the edge, stopping about 2 inches from the base. The result should resemble a hand with fingers. Grill the nopales on a lightly oiled rack directly over the fire until they lighten in color and develop some brown spots. Grilling for about four minutes on each side should suffice.
- Saute: Heat oil in a heavy pan and cook the nopales on low heat, covered. Stir occasionally until they're almost tender and noticeably juicy. Uncover the pan and continue cooking until all the sticky slime evaporates.