Tacos con Nopales (Cactus Paddles)

Have you ever walked into a Mexican grocery and been bewildered by all the neat produce and products that aren't normally seen in American grocery stores? I used to work next to one and found that not only were their avocados better (and cheaper!) but they had produce I wouldn't easily find anywhere outside of a gourmet grocery in Salt Lake.

One of those items is nopal or cactus paddle. You can get it pre-prepared in jars or fresh. I always would look at them and think to myself how neat it would be to prepare if only I knew how.

The other night, I was flipping through channels and came across Rick Bayless' cooking show, Mexico - One Plate At A Time. He happened to be making Mexico City-style street food (which sounded good immediately) and showed how to prepare nopales for cooking. Unfortunately for me, he neglected to actually discuss how best to cook it on the show, but his website turned out to have more info.

To select a good paddle, Bayless recommends choosing one that is vibrant and firm over a dull, limp one. Sounds pretty straightforward for any produce selection, if you ask me. Smaller is better as they will be less sticky and more tender. They last about two weeks loosely wrapped in the fridge.

Preparation is straightforward. Remove any spines by trimming the edges and scraping a large chef's knife over the nodes on the top and bottom to scrape off the spines. It's not necessary to peel it any further as the spines are the only thing you need to be concerned about. As for cooking, he recommended frying it in lard "until done" then slicing it into strips.

Well, that's all well and good, Mr. Bayless, but what does "done" mean to this gringa? Nothing to do, I suppose, but try it and find out. As it turns out, it's pretty easy to tell; the cactus will darken and become rather soft. It has a nice, nutty flavor to it too.

I have to say, I'm glad I finally tried cactus. Alone, they don't taste like much, but add them to well cooked steak and they're so complementary. They add a new dimension to the simply-cooked steak. And making street-style tacos was a great way to use some of the fresh corn tortillas we picked up on a whim.

No pictures today but maybe next time cactus makes it onto the menu. I need to figure out how to rig a camera and lighting setup for those days when dinner takes place after dark. Considering winter's only a couple of months away and it gets dark before 5pm, I'd better figure something out soon.

Tacos de Bistec con Nopales (Seared Steak Tacos with Cactus) [printable recipe]

Recipe adapted from Rick Bayless on Mexico -- One Plate at a Time here.

  • 1 1/2 to 2 cactus paddles
  • 1 tbsp lard, oil or bacon drippings
  • 1/2 lb thin-cut beef
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • salt
  • 6 fresh, warm, small taco-size corn tortillas (toss in a dry, hot pan for 30 seconds a side)
  • 2 limes, quartered
  • salsa or pico de gallo
  • some crumbled queso blanco
  • cilantro
  • sour cream

Preparing the cactus: With a sharp knife, clean the cactus paddles by trimming all the edges and scraping off the spines. Add 1/2 tablespoon (or so) of lard or bacon drippings to a cast-iron skillet and set it over medium-high heat. Add the paddles and cook, turning occasionally, until done, about 8 to 10 minutes. Slice into strips and remove to a bowl.

Searing the meat: Generously salt and evenly sprinkle oregano and chile powder over both sides of each piece of meat. Wipe the skillet or griddle and return it to medium-high heat. Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of lard. When very hot (it’ll just begin to smoke), lay in the meat in a single layer. If it doesn’t all fit comfortably, you’ll need to do this in batches. Sear the meat on one side until brown (about 1½ minutes), flip it over, and sear the other side. Generally, this type of recipe calls for well done meat. Remove to your cutting board.

Chop the seared steak into ½-inch bits and scoop into a serving bowl. Serve with the cactus, salsa/pico, lime wedges, cheese and warm tortillas.

Never built a taco? Just take a tortilla, put some meat or beans on first, followed by cactus, salsa and cheese. Squeeze some lime over the top, sprinkle some chopped cilantro for flavor, fold in half and chow down. If it's too spicy, add a little sour cream before the cilantro. . . .

Every good taco needs a good salsa. Bayless made an interesting one from tomatillos and dried arbol chiles on the same episode that sounded good too. I found that using the quantity of arbol chiles he called for made too spicy of a salsa for me, but the roasted tomatillos were excellent.

If I didn't make salsa, I'd opt for a fresh pico de gallo. I love the bright flavors of pico, especially the one from Todo Mexico in Snohomish, Washington. That one is my favorite but so far, I've failed to recreate it. One day...

Arbol-Tomatillo Salsa [printable recipe]

Adapted from a recipe by Rick Bayless - Mexico -- One Plate At A Time here.

  • 1/4 ounce (about 8) arbol chiles (2" long, skinny, dark red, dried chiles)
  • 6 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 8 - 10 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 2 medium Roma tomatoes
  • Salt
  • Brown sugar, about 1/2 teaspoon

Toasting and roasting: In an ungreased skillet set over medium heat, toast the chiles, stirring them around for a minute or so until they are very aromatic (some will have slightly darkened spots on them). Cover with hot tap water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes.

In the same skillet, roast the garlic, turning regularly, until soft and blotchy-dark in places, about 15 minutes. Cool and slip off the papery skin.

Roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until darkly roasted, even blackened in spots, about 5 minutes. Flip them over and roast the other side—4 or 5 minutes more will give you splotchy-black and blistered tomatillos. Cool, then transfer the contents of the baking sheet (including any juices) to a blender or food processor.

Finishing the salsa: Drain the chiles and add them to the tomatillos along with the garlic and tomatoes. Puree, then scrape into a serving dish. Stir in enough water to give the salsa a spoonable consistency, usually about 1/4 cup. Season with salt, usually a scant teaspoon, and the sugar. Refrigerated, the salsa keeps for several days.