Nopales are cactus leaves. You may not be able to find them everywhere, but they are fairly commonly available at markets in the American Southwest. Nopales are delicious when simply grilled. Their thick, meaty texture lends them their nickname: green steaks. A single leaf can be grilled and served on a plate and pretty much take over the center stage of a meal if you're feeling vegetarian. While it's super easy to serve grilled nopales whole, similar to steaks, grilled nopales can also be sliced and served on salads or chopped and added to stir-fries or served on their own as more of a side dish.
What do nopales taste like? They have a mild flavor that's a bit grassy and that reminds some people a bit of asparagus. It goes well with mild Mexican-style cheeses and is particularly good with fresh salsa and/or your favorite hot sauce. Try serving them with corn avocado salsa for a satisfying vegan meal.
This is more a method than a recipe, so scale up or down as the number of people around your table (or filling your backyard) requires.
- 1 to 2 nopales (per person)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or canola or grapeseed)
- Salt to taste (fine sea salt)
Gather the ingredients.
Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high heat (you should be able to hold your hand about 1 inch over the cooking grate for 3 to 4 seconds before pulling it away from the heat).
While the grill heats, prepare the nopales. If you're lucky, you bought them someplace where they clean them up for you and remove the thorns first; if not, you might want to put on a pair of gloves. Their thorns can be tricky to see, but wherever there's a bump on the leaf there is likely to be a thorn. Use a small paring knife or vegetable peeler to knick all of them off. This is easiest to do with the leaf laying flat on the cutting board. Once all the thorns are removed, you may be tempted to peel off the rest of the dark green skin. Resist that temptation: there's a lot of flavor there! Rinse each leaf clean and pat it dry.
Liberally brush each cleaned nopales with oil. Put them on the hot grill and cook, undisturbed, until grill marks form on 1 side and the nopales wilt, about 4 minutes. Turn them over to cook on the other side and let sit until grill marks form on the other side and the leaf is tender all the way through, about another 4 minutes. Tip: Avoid moving them around as they cook if you want clear grill marks to form.
Remove the cooked nopales from the grill, sprinkle with salt, and serve hot or warm.
- Slice the grilled nopales and serve with a spritz of lemon.
- Chop up the grilled nopales and toss with chopped green onions, red wine vinegar, and a bit of olive oil—sort of like a salad—and top with crumbled queso fresco.
- When you turn the nopales over, top with beans and cheese, cover the grill to help the cheese melt.