How was your Fourth of July weekend? Mine was quite nice, thank you very much for asking. I got some stuff done around the house, saw a movie at the $3 theater in my neighborhood (we saw Fast Five, and I’m glad I only paid $3 for it), and yesterday, went to a lively and fun BBQ at my friend Jen’s house. Since I don’t like coming to events empty-handed, I told Jen I’d bring along a salad, and after some thinking, I knew exactly what salad I wanted to bring.
A few months ago, my aunt Annie made a delicious 3-ingredient salad (which you can read about here). It had onion, cilantro, and the star of the dish, cactus. Yep, cactus. It was the first time I’d ever eaten cactus, and it was delicious. I’ve been wanting to make the salad ever since, and Jen’s BBQ gave me the perfect opportunity. If you know me at all, you know that I can’t make a recipe without tweaking it here and there and making it my own, and that was the case yesterday as well. So this is no longer a 3-ingredient dish. It’s a 7-ingredient dish. It’s still easy-peasy, and the guests at Jen’s BBQ confirmed that it’s a crowd-pleaser (and conversation-starter).
So what do you need to make my cactus salad? For starters, cactus:
Not all cactuses (cacti?) are edible. The edible kind are called nopal, and they’re native to Mexico, where they’ve been eaten by the indigenous people for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, in the 14th century, the Aztec people were told by one of their gods to build a new city on an island in a lake, and they would know which island, because when they went there, they would see an eagle, perched on a nopal, eating a snake. The Aztecs found the eagle, and built their city, which grew and eventually became Mexico City, and the story of the eagle, snake, and nopal is immortalized on the Mexican flag.
Nopalitos, or “little Nopals” are the tender cactus pads of the Nopal cactus. I’ve seen them whole and raw in the produce section at Mexican supermarkets in Los Angeles, but that seems like such a hassle, because you have to trim the thorns off them, and that seems like an engraved invitation for me to get 10,000 puncture wounds in my hands. I think I’ve also seen them trimmed up, thorn-free and raw in the produce section, too, which would be a big help, but you know what’s even easier? The jarred version I ended up buying.
The 30-ounce jar of Dona Maria-brand nopalitos pictured above cost me $2.99 at Superior Grocers. The nopalitos have been trimmed, cooked, and pickled, and for this recipe, I used two jars, which I drained in my colander, and rinsed under cold water, to remove the excess vinegar and salt. Then, they went into my bowl:
Some people say that nopalitos taste similar to okra, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve had okra (it was years and years ago), so I can’t confirm or deny that. I think they taste (and look) quite like green beans. They’re very limp and a little on the slimy side, but then again, they’ve been pickled. Nopalitos are a good source of fiber and vitamins A, C, and K. They’ve been shown to reduce the glucose in diabetics’ blood, so you can find nopal-based supplements and pills. My jar of nopalitos says that a serving only has 5 calories, but a serving is only 2 tablespoons, and I suspect the serving size is so small because the pickling process adds so much salt – those 2 tablespoons have 560mg of sodium, or 23% of your recommended daily intake, which is precisely why I drained and rinsed them for the salad – hopefully I washed some of that sodium away.
Back to the salad. Ingredients 2 through 5 are all vegetables, which I uniformly diced pretty small, so they’d be smaller than the nopalitos:
From left to right, I used:
- 1/2 of a white onion. I would’ve preferred to use red onion, because of the color, but I had a white onion in my fridge that I wanted to use up.
- Tomatoes. I used 3 small Roma tomatoes and 1 regular tomato, because that’s what I had lying around. I scooped out the seeds and core of all of them them before dicing, to limit the amount of liquid in the salad.
- 1 cucumber, deseeded and diced.
- 1 red bell pepper, diced.
They all went into the bowl. Then, this guy:
A jalapeno pepper! I thought it’d be nice to add a little heat to the salad. You can leave it out if you want to – it’s no big deal. Jalapenos (and all other hot peppers) hold a majority of their heat in the ribs and seeds, so be sure to remove them before chopping it up (and don’t touch your eyes!). I chopped it up as finely as I possibly could, because I didn’t want anyone getting a big bite of jalapeno:
I went ahead and minced the entire jalapeno. Why not?
The 7th and final ingredient? A handful of cilantro:
Then I tossed it all together (for a long time, to make sure that jalapeno got distributed everywhere evenly), and here’s the end result:
Because of the lingering brine from the nopalito jars, there’s no need for a dressing of any kind, which makes this salad even easier! I did, however, make it a few hours before heading to the BBQ, so it could all marinate together for a while. And I did serve myself a little sample, because I couldn’t wait until the BBQ to give it a try:
Mmm-mmm! It was flavorful, and the mix of tender napolitos with crisp fresh vegetables provided a nice variety of textures. And for anyone weary of the jalapeno, it wasn’t very hot, either – just a nice hint of heat.
Hopefully you’ll give nopalitos a try – this salad is an easy way to introduce a new food to your family and friends! And if you liked this recipe, check out some my other recent lettuce-less salad ideas:
One more fun fact about the nopal cactus – it’s also called a prickly pear cactus, and the prickly pear fruit (sometimes called cactus pear) comes from the same plant. I tried prickly pear for the first time last fall, and they’re dangerous (read about them here)! It’s pretty cool that one plant provides both a vegetable and a fruit, and I’m glad that I’ve tried both products.
Keep it up, David!