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"Reds, greens, purples," says Chris DelGrosso, "these are the colours of Ensalada de Nopales, a salad made from cactus pads."
Yes, that's right, cactus salad!
This vibrant, fresh and colorful salad from Mexico City epitomizes summer. It might sound a bit exotic, but that's half the fun, plus it's easy to make and it's good for you too.
Nopales refers to the pads of the prickly pear cactus, which are edible when the spines are removed. They are native to Mexico, where the plant is eaten in a variety of dishes, and is green in color. Their flavor is likened to green beans and their texture is crisp. "One of the things about nopal that turns a lot of people off is that it's slimy once water touches them," says DelGrosso.
"One of the tricks with that is to either blanch it and rinse it in cold water or to actually fry it off, so when you serve it you'll have none of that sliminess left."
Nopales are best fresh, although you can get them in cans too. "Now, you may be thinking where can you get fresh nopales?" says DelGrosso. "I've seen them in some grocery stores but if you can't find them there you can always get them fresh online." He recommends Rivenrock Gardens in California. "They're a bit pricey, but you get what you pay for - they're fresh, organic and sent to you overnight."
DelGrosso shows us how to prepare the nopal for eating, using a small pairing knife to remove all the spines and take the edges off. "It's ok if you get a little bit of the skin, just make sure you get all those spines off," he cautions, "the worst thing to do is get those in your mouth when you're eating a salad!" He then uses the same knife to roughly julienne the nopal - slicing nice and thin, but not worrying too much about neatness - and then blanches it in boiling water.
To make the salad DelGrosso chops half a red onion, deseeds and deveins a red chili and chops that finely, halves some cherry tomatoes and chops some cilantro. He adds these to a bowl along with the nopales and tosses with some white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. He plates up on a bed of arugula and sprinkles with cotija cheese - a salty, Mexican cow's milk cheese, similar to feta but "a little bit dried and a little bit aged". For the finishing touch - some slices of fresh avocado.
"This salad is very light and very fresh and very good for you, so you can serve it as a light starter to a heavy entrée, such as lamb, rack of lamb, roast beef, prime rib, any kind of heavy meat dish", says DelGrosso. "I would really urge you to go out and make this; it is just so delicious and so light for the start of a meal."
6-8 Cactus Paddles (Nopal)
1/2 Red Onion
6-7 Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, packed
1-2 Chile Jalapeño or Fresno chiles
1/4 cup Queso cotija or Queso Fresco
2 cups fresh baby arugula
1/2 ripe avocado sliced.
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tablespoon White Basalmic Vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Clean the nopal to remove all the needles and nubs on each paddle.
2. Julienne each nopal into small strips about 2 inches long.
3. Rinse and then blanch the nopales in boiling, lightly salted water for about 5 minutes.
4. Rinse the nopal with cold water or shock on ice bath.
5. Slice the onion, halve the cherry tomatoes, and chop the cilantro. Combine with the nopales in a mixing bowl.
6. Stem, devein, and remove the seeds from the chiles and dice then add them to the bowl.
7. Season with salt and pepper. Dress with the olive oil and vinegar and mix well.
8. Wash and spin the arugula, then place on serving dish or bowl as a bed for the salad.
9. Empty contents of mixing bowl on top of the arugula. Sprinkle with the crumbled cotija, top with the avocado slices and serve!
Recipe courtesy of Chris DelGrosso, The DelGrosso Food Blog, 2012.
Chris, creator of The DelGrosso Food Blog, is an Engineer, U.S Marine, avid runner, father of a beautiful daughter, and husband to a wonderful wife. He currently lives in New England, in the state of