Nopal is the Mexican name for a variety of species of Opuntia cactus that is native to Mexico and have been used there as food since time immemorial. One common use of the cactus’s pads is this classic nopalitos salad dish.
Ensalada de nopales just may be the perfect salad. It’s aromatic and delicious, very nutritious, and easy to make. It can be served in a variety of ways, from stand-alone appetizer to side dish to (for example) plain grilled meats, to the main dish when used as a topping for Mexican tostadas.
Nowadays, jars of chopped, cooked nopales are relatively easy to find for sale in Mexican groceries and even some large supermarkets, and they make this salad all the much easier to prepare. However, if you’d like to try your hand at making this from scratch, just follow the instructions below the basic recipe.
- 1 fresh red tomato
- 1 small white or purple onion
- 2 cups of chopped, cooked nopales (from a jar, or see below recipes for instructions for using fresh cactus)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro (leaves and stems)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons Mexican lime juice (freshly squeezed)
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Garnish: crumbled queso fresco cheese
- Garnish: thinly sliced onion
- Garnish: sliced avocado
Chop the tomato and onion into small pieces.
Pour the canned or jarred nopales into a strainer to drain. Rinse them under running water until the jar liquid is washed off. Leave the nopales in long strips (if that’s how they came), or chop into pieces of about the same size as the tomato and onions, as you prefer.
In a large glass, ceramic, or stainless steel bowl, toss together the tomato, onion, nopales, and finely chopped cilantro.
Place the olive oil, lime juice, oregano, and salt into a small jar with the lid on. Shake vigorously until the mixture comes together. Pour this dressing over the salad and toss again, gently but thoroughly.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate your salad for at least an hour and up to 24 hours for the flavors to meld.
Shortly before serving your delicious cactus salad, place it into a nice serving dish or on individual salad plates and decorate with crumbled cheese, very thinly sliced onion, and sliced avocado, if desired.
- Not crazy about cilantro, or cheese, or some other ingredient? Just leave it out; make a salad that you love!
- If you’d prefer a milder onion flavor, briefly rinse the chopped onions under running water before adding them to the salad.
- Give your cactus some heat. Drain a few canned or homemade pickled jalapeño pepper slices (or pickled carrots), then dice them. Toss with the other ingredients before adding the dressing. Add a small number of cooked garbanzo beans, corn kernels, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, or some other interesting ingredient to the mix.
- Can’t get nopales at all, fresh or jarred? Make this same recipe with cooked, chopped green beans; it won't be the same as the original dish, but you will achieve a similar type of salad.
To Use Fresh Nopales:
If you are able to find fresh nopal cactus pads, buy them with the spines already removed by the vendor. Many people prefer the smaller, thinner, younger pads because they tend to be more tender, but cactus pads of any size will work. Rinse them off, then cut into long strips about a half-inch wide.
Place cactus pieces into a pan (choose one that seems a little large for the amount of cactus it contains so that there will be plenty of “headroom”) and cover with water. Boil gently for about 20 minutes or until all of the cactus pieces have changed from a bright green to an olive green color and are tender. The nopales will let loose quite a bit of viscous liquid in a way similar to how okra does when it is cooked.
Once cooked, strain the nopales and rinse under running water until most of the slippery substance has washed away. (Any remaining “slime” is completely harmless). Use cooked nopales in the same way you would use cactus pieces from a jar.