"Reds, greens, purples" says Chris DelGrosso, these are the colors of Ensalada de Nopales, a salad made from cactus pads.
Yes, that's right, cactus salad!
This vibrant, fresh and colorful salad from Mexico City epitomizes summer. It might sound a bit exotic, but that's half the fun, plus it's easy to make and it's good for you, too.
Nopales refer to the pads of the prickly pear cactus, which are edible when the spines are removed. They are native to Mexico, where the plant is eaten in a variety of dishes, and can be purple or green in color. Their flavor is likened to green beans and their texture is crisp. "One of the things about nopal that turns a lot of people off is that it's slimy" says DelGrosso. "One of the tricks with that is to either blanch it and rinse it in cold water or to actually fry it off, so when you serve it you'll have none of that sliminess left."
Nopales are best fresh, although you can get them in cans, too. "Now, you may be thinking where can you get fresh nopales?" says DelGrosso. "I've seen them in some grocery stores — Shaws, Market Basket and so forth - but if you can't find them there you can always get them fresh online." He recommends Rivenrock Gardens in California; "They're a bit pricey, but you get what you pay for — they're fresh, organic and sent to you overnight."
DelGrosso prepares the nopal for eating, using a small pairing knife to remove all the spines and take the edges off. "It's OK if you get a little bit of the skin, just make sure you get all those spines off," he cautions. "The worst thing to do is get those in your mouth when you're eating a salad!" He then uses the same knife to roughly julienne the nopal — slicing nice and thin, but not worrying too much about neatness — and then blanches it in boiling water.
To make the salad, DelGrosso chops half a red onion, deseeds and deveins a red chili and chops that finely, halves some cherry tomatoes and chops some cilantro. He adds these to a bowl along with the nopales and tosses all with some white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. He plates up on a bed of arugula and sprinkles with cotija cheese — a salty, Mexican cow's milk cheese, similar to feta but "a little bit dried and a little bit aged," For the finishing touch - some slices of fresh avocado.
"This salad is very light and very fresh and very good for you, so you can serve it as a light starter to a heavy entree, such as lamb, rack of lamb, roast beef, prime rib, any kind of heavy meat dish" says DelGrosso. "I would really urge you to go out and make this; it is just so delicious and so light for the start of a meal."
Ensalada de Nopales
2 large nopales, or cactus pads
1/2 large Spanish onion, sliced
10 to 12 fresh cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro
1 chili pepper, deveined and chopped (optional for hotness)
1 capful white balsamic vinegar
1 capful olive oil
1 handful cotija cheese
1 avocado, cubed
1. Clean nopales with a peeler or a small paring knife. Make sure to remove all the thorns and nods, paying special attention to removing the edges of the pads.
2. Cut in bite-size pieces or julienne it and parboil for 20 to 25 minutes. Add salt to taste. Drain.
3. Mix with the onion, tomatoes, pepper, cilantro and oil in a salad bowl. Add to a serving bowl over some arugula.
4. Cut avocado and place on top of salad. Sprinkle with cheese.
Serve with your favorite dinner and enjoy.
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Recipe courtesy of Chris DelGrosso, DelGrosso Food Blog, 2012.