Cactus Paddle Salad (Ensalada De Nopales)
This is one of my favorite salads, and is now establishing a name and reputation in the USA not only for the great flavor but also for the healthy qualities, Cactus pads contain beta carotene, iron, some B vitamins, and are good sources of both vitamin C and calcium.
The paddles, or nopales, of the prickly pear (or nopal) cactus are sold in Mexican markets and many supermarkets, usually with their stickers already removed. They have a flavor that recalls both sorrel and asparagus and are used in salads, side dishes and with eggs. Nopales are easy to prepare: Using a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler or a small paring knife, carefully cut away any stickers and their "eyes." Trim off the entire outer edge of the paddle, including the base end where it was attached to the cactus. A sticky fluid will exude but will disappear when cooked, or it can be rinsed off.
2 Tbs. canola oil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 lb. nopales (3 or 4), cleaned and cut into 1⁄4-inch pieces
1/4 cup finely chopped white onion
2 jalapeño or serrano chilies, thinly sliced crosswise
Sea salt, to taste
For the dressing:
1 tsp. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1⁄8 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbs. cider vinegar
2 Tbs. canola oil
1/8 tsp. sea salt
Pinch of sugar
Fresh vegetables for the salad:
3⁄4 lb. ripe tomatoes, diced
1 diced fresh ripe avocado.
5 green onions, white and light green
portions, thinly sliced
4 to 5 Tbs. finely minced fresh cilantro
6 inner leaves from 1 head romaine lettuce
1⁄4 lb. queso fresco or mild feta cheese, crumbled
In a large, heavy fry pan or wide saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the garlic and fry for several seconds until fragrant. Stir in the nopales, onion and chilies, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cactus is almost tender, about 15 minutes. The cactus will give off a sticky substance, but most of it will disappear with longer cooking. Uncover and continue to cook until the sticky residue has dried up, about 15 minutes more. Season with sea salt.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the oregano, mustard and vinegar. Whisk in the oil, sea salt and sugar.
Place the warm nopales in a bowl. Quickly whisk the dressing to recombine, then pour over the nopales and toss to coat. Add the tomatoes and green onions and mix gently, coating all the vegetables with the dressing. Just before serving, add the cilantro and toss to mix.
Line each plate with a romaine leaf and top each leaf with a scoop of the nopales mixture. Scatter the cheese evenly over the salads. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
Variation Tip: If fresh nopales are unavailable, substitute 1 jar (30 oz.) nopales, drained and rinsed. Add them after the garlic, onion and chilies have cooked for 5 minutes.