Curious how to cook nopales, or cactus paddles? This article tells you everything you need to know to work with the Mexican veggie! Find out how to cook nopales below.
For years leading up to that fateful day, I bristled at the thought of a “cactus taco”, shying away from nopales breakfast tacos when I was law schooling in Austin, TX, avoiding any and all menu items with the ingredient. Typically an adventurous eater, perhaps it was my years spent growing up in Phoenix, AZ around masses of prickly pears that turned me off. Or maybe it was watching my sister learning to ride a bike.. who then took a fateful turn off our driveway into a mess of them.
Whatever it was, my distaste gave way to curiosity on a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico (One of our absolute favorite spots, ugh. Who wants to go in on some real estate?) with O a few months ago. I ordered, fair enough, arrachera (marinated flank steak – super vegan), topped with slices of tender nopales and Manchego cheese. Did I mention how vegan it was?
Anyway, that was, as I said, the fateful day that turned it all around. Upon first bite into those tender pads, my eyes–I believe–rolled into the back of my head, as I let out a massive (and massively embarrassing) groan. Something like this: urgghhhooooooohhhhhmaaaaaAAAAAYYYYNthatisgood.
Back home, I pick up a few paddles every week at our local Asian market/supermercado and either sauté or boil them to remove the goopy ooze (how much am I selling you on these babies right now?) to produce those perfect little strips, which I then usually toss in chimichurri and serve at our weekly “indulgence” meal, the fanciest on the meal plan, usually served on a Sunday night.
When we went “mostly vegan”, it dawned on me that because of their heartiness, their meatiness, and their tender, subtle flavor, nopales would be perfect as a sort of “meat replacement” in the now-vegan meals we craved, like tacos. Pack your backs, Portobello, you’re being replaced.
Try these for some meaty heft and beautiful flavor anywhere you’d use vegan “meat”, eggplant, or portobello. They toss in sauce perfectly but I haven’t tried marinating them (as we often do with portobello). We had them in tacos, paired with oyster mushrooms and a vegan aioli (all coming soon!), and I pretty much died.
You should be able to find these at any well-stocked Latin or Asian market, or, if you’re lucky enough to live out West or in Texas or really anywhere with a strong Hispanic population, you can find these at your local grocery store! I know HEB carried a mess of them when I was in Austin.
How to choose nopales
You want paddles that are flexible but not soft. I pick them up by the beefy stem and bend them a bit over on themselves to test them at the store. If they’re super flexible, I keep looking for paddles that bend but give a little. Smaller paddles are more tender, but more work.
How to cook nopales
You might intuit, intelligent reader that you are, that these paddles have spines on them.. spines that can prick you. While you’re first getting used to preparing nopales, try using rubber gloves when prepping them. Eventually you’ll get a feel for working with them and won’t need the gloves. I read that, too, when I first learned how to prepare them, thinking those people were insane, but about 4 go-rounds later, I wonder why in the world I needed gloves to begin with.
First begin by using the blade of a knife or a peeler to scrape off the little brown knobs. You can do this by using a very gentle and shallow sawing-motion inward from the end of the nopales to the thick base. You want to leave as much skin on as you can and just remove the knobs and spines, so just try to hit the taller knobs, leaving the flat nopale skin alone. You can also do this by holding a knife perpendicular to the nopales and scraping inwards towards the base with the edge of the knife. Lastly, a peeler is pretty self-explanatory, but mine I guess just.. sucks. I pretty much always use a knife.
Once you’ve removed the knobs and spines, trim the edges of the nopales, about 1/4″ off, and trim off the thick base, about 1/2″. Wash. Cut into strips or squares, or leave whole if you want. However you prefer.
Two methods for cooking
1. Put a pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil, adding a hefty pinch of salt and couple smashed cloves of garlic, if you desire. Add prepared nopales and boil for about 15-20 minutes, or until tender. You want to boil out the gelatinous substance that will ooze out of the nopales. When tender, drain well and then add to recipe.
2. Place a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add in a bit of oil–not too much. Add in prepared nopales and a pinch of salt (to taste) and cook for a couple minutes. Cover with lid and reduce heat to medium. Let cook and sweat about 20 minutes, or until the goo has seeped out and dried up.
Try inside a taco for a totally delightful vegan dinner–I have a recipe coming! They’re delicious in salads, tofu scrambles, salsas, you name it. They’d be insane fajitas, and perfect stuffed into a burrito. Yum! What’s your favorite way to eat nopales?
- 4 nopales paddles approximately 1 pound, see Notes
- 1 teaspoon salt more or less to taste
- 3 cloves garlic smashed, for boiled nopales
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil for sweated nopales
- Sharp knife or potato peeler
- Large pot with lid or medium skillet with lid
- colander or strainer
To Prepare Nopales
- Carefully remove knobs and spines of nopales with sharp knife or potato peeler in gentle, sawing motion. Work inward from end of nopales to thick base of nopales. Leave as much skin as possible, removing only knobs and spines.
- Once knobs and spines are removed, slice off approximately ¼-inch from end of nopales and approximately ½-inch from thick base of nopales.
- Wash trimmed nopales under running water, then slice paddles into strips or squares if desired.
Method 1 – Boiled Nopales
- Fill large pot with water and salt well. Add smashed garlic cloves to water and bring liquid to boil over high heat.
- Once liquid is boiling, add prepared nopales to pot. Cover and boil nopales 15 to 20 minutes or until paddles are tender and gelatinous substance has seeped out.
- Carefully pour liquid and nopales through colander or strainer, draining nopales well. Use nopales as desired.
Method 2 – Sweated Nopales
- Heat medium skillet over medium-high heat. When skillet is hot, add 1 tablespoon neutral oil and swirl pan to coat. Heat oil until hot and shimmering, then add prepared nopales to skillet and sprinkle salt over.
- Reduce heat to medium and cover skillet with lid. Let nopales cook, covered, for 20 minutes, or until gelatinous substance has evaporated.
- Remove skillet from heat and use sweated nopales as desired.
- Choose nopales paddles that are flexible, but not soft or mushy. You want them to give a little but not too much. Smaller paddles are typically more tender than larger paddles. See post for more detail on choosing, preparing, and cooking nopales.
Number of total servings shown is approximate. Actual number of servings will depend on your preferred portion sizes.
Nutritional values shown are general guidelines and reflect information for 1 serving using the ingredients listed, not including any optional ingredients. Actual macros may vary slightly depending on specific brands and types of ingredients used.
To determine the weight of one serving, prepare the recipe as instructed. Weigh the finished recipe, then divide the weight of the finished recipe (not including the weight of the container the food is in) by the desired number of servings. Result will be the weight of one serving.