Every springtime, we head into the brush with our metal pans and knives, looking for those first tender paddles of cactus to harvest for a dish of nopalitos. Of course, springtime is always snake time too, so we make sure to put on our boots, and keep out eyes analyzing the ground. As they say, everything in Texas either bites, sticks, stinks or stings, and that includes what you eat for dinner!
Nopalitos are Cooked Cactus
When I was growing up, the main way that we enjoyed nopalitos was mixing them into scrambled eggs for breakfast. But there are so many different ways to fix them, there is no need to be in a rut. Sauté the nopalitos alongside your onions when making Mexican rice, or when you are frying chorizo. Nopalitos have a very mild flavor like green beans, so they can be added to any favorite dish, even cold salads.
This is serious down-home South Texas ranch food that causes outsiders to scratch their heads. Cactus? Yep. It’s about the only local, native vegetable we can grow, so of course we celebrate when nopalitos are available for harvest.
FYI the word nopalito simply means “little cactus.” The first shoots in springtime are the most tender, and once they are boiled and diced, they melt in your mouth!
Don’t Eat Nopalito Thorns!
But never eat the thorns! Cactus thorns do not melt in your mouth. To remove the thorns, first trim around the outside of the paddle to remove the outer thorns. Then using a sharp knife, knick off all of the pores of the cactus where the thorns emerge. Make sure that every single pore is shaved off of the surface of the paddle. If not, well…there will be problems.
Look for prepared nopalitos already de-thorned, washed and bagged in the produce section of your supermarket. Even if they are prepared, make sure that you rinse the cactus thoroughly before you begin to cook them.
When preparing nopalitos, be a Texan, and be alert! You just never know when your bite of side dish is going to bite you back!Print
Nopalitos en Chile
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 25
- Total Time: 45 minutes
- Yield: 4 servings 1x
- Category: Vegetables
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Mexican
1 lb. (500gr) fresh cactus, without thorns and well washed
1 oz. (28gr) dried chile guajillo or chile ancho, or a combination of both
1 cup (240 ml) water
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp. (30ml) olive oil
1 small onion, peel and diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the chopped cactus in a 2 qt (2 lt.) saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, cover and simmer until the cactus changes color from bright to dull green, about 10 minutes. The water in the saucepan will become gooey as the cactus cooks. Once the cactus is tender and darker in color, drain the water in the colander, and rinse the cactus well. Allow to cool.
Meanwhile, in a separate 2 qt. (2 lt.) saucepan, fill halfway full with water, and add the dried chiles. Bring to a boil over medium heat, cover and allow to simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the chiles from the water and discard the water. Remove the stems, and rinse away any remaining seeds.
Place the prepared chiles in the container of a blender or immersion blender along with the water and garlic. Blend until smooth. If needed, you can add another 1/2 cup (120ml) of water to facilitate blending.
In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the chopped onions, and sauté over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Carefully add the chile puree, stirring to combine well. Add the prepared cactus, stirring to coat the cactus well with the chile sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 3-5 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and the cactus is heated throughout.
This recipe is easily doubled. Also, add a few chopped tomatoes or crumbled queso fresco for a delicious garnish!
I enjoyed your post–an interesting recipe with a dose of humor. I was quite fascinated with nopalitos a few years ago and made a salad similar to one I had in the Yucatan. I once tried harvesting my own & it didn’t go well. Since then, I have been buying prepared ones, but have to say, I haven’t done so in quite a while. So thank you for the reminder and recipe.