How Do You Cook Cactus?

or What To Do With Nopales!

CactusFlowerCactus. For most of us a cute house plant we cannot kill, the main vegetation of many National and Regional Parks and the quintessential symbol of the American Southwestern deserts. But cactus may well be on its way to becoming a main staple food in the Western Hemisphere.

Nopales and Tunas (or cactus pears) grow from the plant genus Opuntia, which "represents the most efficient conversion of water to calories on the planet," reports Peter Felker, cactus research head at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. Cactus pads and fruit are eaten and enjoyed in parts of Europe, the Middle East, India, North Africa, Australia, South and Central America and the United States. Nopales are available year-round at The Co-op in the produce department.

While researching this handout, I was amazed at the apparent passion for cactus of which I had been wholly unaware! If you want to know more about any facet of cactus-mania, I suggest you visit the Cactus Mall web site,  which contains all the links anyone could ever dream of for finding cactus information.

Nopales can be something of an acquired taste. Their flavor -- green pepper, string beans and asparagus with a sorrel sourness -- inside a soft but crisp texture can be pleasing, but people tend to love or hate the slippery inside similar to okra.

Helpful Hints for Cooking Nopales

The best nopales are medium to small, rich green in color and crisp. The Co-op has them year-round, though seasonal time is spring through fall. Plastic-wrapped nopales last for weeks in the refrigerator, but be careful not to store them at less than 40° F as damage may occur.

Before using, scrape or cut off the spines/prickers. Use a large vegetable peeler or a sharp knife; run along the flat surface of the pads. The effect will be small areas of the pad having the spines and skin removed, but for the most part the pad's skin remains in tact. After de-pricking, cut off the skin at the edge of the pad, all the way around, so that there is only skin left on the top and bottom of the pad. Now you may use the pads whole or julienne, dice or slice them into fingers.

There are several different methods for basic preparation of nopales:

  1. Steam whole pads over boiling water for about five minutes, then slice. This will enhance the green color and leave the nopales crisp but hot.
  2. Saute slices in butter or oil for a few minutes until browned.
  3. Grill pads that have been cut into fingers, still attached at the base. Dip into beer and press onto greased griddle to brown.
  4. Roast whole pads that have been scored lengthwise. Brush with oil, lime juice and salt. Roast over medium-low charcoal fire for 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Or roast in 350° oven about 25 minutes. Cool and cut into strips or dice.
  5. Boil whole napoles in heavily salted water or with tomatillo and corn husks for about 5 minutes. The sticky insides of the pads can make the water thick and foamy, so be careful not to let it boil over.

Nopales Recipe Ideas

Fresh Nopal & Jicama Salad (Jeff Drew)

Split fairly small raw cactus pads as you would slice a bagel; julienne. Toss with jicama julienne, segmented tangerines and chile powder.

Grilled Nopal Salad (Stephan Pyles)

Marinate whole cleaned pads in oil, red onion, chiles, cilantro and lime juice. Grill; julienne. Combine with julienne of jicamaon watercress and endive. Serve with vinaigrette of orange and pomegranate.

Nopalito, Tomato, and Cheese Salad (Josefina Howard)

Boil whole nopalitos until barely tender. Rinse; cut with round cookie cutter. Marinate in lemon-thyme vinaigrette. Cut thin queso fresco rounds (a fresh, mild, white Mexican cheese); arrange with tomato slices.

Nopalito Cheese Appetizers (Josefina Howard)

Sandwich a slice of queso fresco (or other soft, mild white cheese such as Fontina), between two thin, tender nopales. Grill, turning with tongs. Cut into slices and serve with warm corn tortillas.

Grilled Cactus with Red and Green Sauces (Cuisine of the Water Gods)

For red sauce, combine water, plum tomatoes, toasted (seeded and deveined) dried chiles and white onion. Cook until soft; puree. For green sauce, puree husked tomatillos, white onion garlic, Serrano chiles, cilantro and water. Season sauces to taste. Brush whole nopales with with oil and brown on griddle. Serve with grilled scallions, sliced avocado, shredded string cheese, thinly sliced queso fresco, and the red and green sauces. Nopal Pocket Sandwiches: A unique presentation and easy to make ahead. Cut a slit in cactus pad as you would in a pita. Stuff with spiked, chile-spiced chicken or duck meat. Rub with cumin oil and grill until hot throughout. Serve with a pineapple relish.

Nopal Parmesan

Boil whole, de-pricked and slit nopales for three minutes then rinse. Dip in mixture of milk and egg and dredge through flour or mixture of cornmeal and flour. Brown in hot skillet with corn oil. Top with tomato-based sauce and mozzarella cheese; flash brown in broiler. Serve with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and roasted Anaheim chile.

Slivered Nopal and Mushrooms

Saute sliced Shitake or Portabelo mushroom caps with garlic and cumin. Add julienne of nopal and toss, then add seasoned stock to taste. The juice of the nopales will give the vegetables a thick, slick textured sauce.

Cactus and Corn Salad with Smoked Mussels (John Sedlar)

Blanch small dice of cactus pads; drain. Rinse until no longer gummy; dry. Toss with whole grain mustard and tarragon. Serve with smoked mussels tossed with dressing.

Southwest Bouillabaisse (John Sedlar)

Prepare rich stock with olive oil, garlic, carrots, celery, onions, orange peel, bay leaves, thyme, parsley, anise, chiles, fish bones, tomatoes, sliced cactus, lemon juice, water, white wine and tomato paste; reduce by half and strain. Add scallops, fish fillets, shrimp and crab meat; barely cook through. Remove meat from broth and distribute among bowls. Add clams and mussels to broth; cook to open and add to bowls. Cut nopales into three-pronged claw shapes; brush with garlic and oil; grill until slightly tender. Add to bowls and top with broth. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Recipes and excerpts taken from Food Arts: The Magazine for Professionals, April, 1996.

Nopal Cactus Salad with Cilantro

6 nopales cactus pads, scraped clean of spines
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 onion, cut in half
1 clove garlic
2 stalks cilantro
1 Tbsp dried oregano
Salt and pepper


1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tomato, diced
1/2 cup chopped green onions
2 green chiles, minced (Serrano or Anaheim)

Cut the nopales into strips. Put in a pot to boil with other ingredients (not garnishes) until tender (about 5 minutes). Then drain, discarding other cooked ingredients. Combine on a serving plate with the garnishes, toss well and serve accompanied by the heated tortillas, which can be used to make tacos of the salad.

Bean Soup with Nopales

2 cups beans, soaked at least 3 hours, and cooked until soft in 6 cups water
2 Tbsp butter or margarine
1/2 red onion, chopped
4 or 5 Nopales cactus pads, scraped and diced
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

Melt butter or margarine in a large saucepan and saute the onion and nopales until soft. Add the beans, along with the water in which they were cooked. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cilantro.

Recipes from Las Glorias de Gloria: The New Cuisine of Mexico by Gloria Guitierrez, 1990.