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Nopales Salad: Mexican Cactus Paddles

If you try cactus, you’ll probably like it — so stop being a food wimp and try a little cactus! This authentic Mexican salad uses the popular Mexican ingredient called nopales (cactus paddles), which are served all over Mexico.

Look for nopales (noh-PAHL-es), also from the prickly pear, at farmers markets or ethnic grocers. They’re usually sold already cleaned (with their needles removed), in plastic bags. The best, freshest paddles are bright green and firm and reverberate when flicked with a finger.

Nopales Salad

Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus 2 hours chilling

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

1-1/2 pounds fresh or prepared cactus paddles, needles removed*

3/4 cup olive oil (or 1/2 cup if you’re using canned cactus)

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 Roma tomatoes

1/2 small red onion

2 serrano chiles

1 bunch cilantro leaves

1/2 cup finely grated añejo cheese

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

4 to 6 red lettuce leaves

1 avocado, peeled

  1. Preheat the grill medium hot or heat the broiler.

  2. For fresh cactus, place the cleaned paddles in a large bowl and toss with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the 1/2 teaspoon salt.

  3. Grill or broil the paddles until grill marks appear on both sides, or until the paddles turn dark green with black patches, about 4 minutes total.

    If using canned cactus, simply drain well and skip the grilling, omitting the 1/4 cup of olive oil used for grilling.

  4. Set aside to cool to room temperature; cover and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

  5. Cut the cactus into 1/2-inch pieces.

  6. Core, seed, and dice the tomatoes. Dice the red onion and chiles. Chop the cilantro leaves.

  7. In a large bowl, combine the cactus, tomatoes, onion, chiles, cilantro, and cheese with the remaining 1/2 cup oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Toss well.

  8. Peel, seed, and thinly slice the avocado.

  9. Serve the salad on plates lined with lettuce leaves and garnished with avocado slices.

* You may have to buy your cactus paddles au naturel and clean them yourself. The best way to remove the needles is to shave across the paddle with a sharp paring knife. Store the cleaned paddles in plastic bags in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator.

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