Cactus and Corn Salsa

Please welcome Amber Stott, founder of California Food Literacy Center and the blogger behind Awake at the Whisk, as she shares this truly delightful salsa made with nopales cactus paddles. We made it together the other day, so good! ~Elise

I’m a regular at my local farmers market. Farmers near Sacramento, California grow an impressive variety of food and every visit yields something new and tempting. A few years ago, I found a new favorite. Tucked away in a quiet corner behind mile high piles of pearly grapes and fat figs sat a man working quickly with a knife, sliding his blade across apple green paddles—cactus! (Also known as nopales, the young pads of the prickly pear cactus.) The farmer sent me on my way with several crisp paddles and some cooking suggestions. I’ve been addicted to nopales ever since.

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Cactus farmer at farmers market, photo by Amber Stott

Cactus has a crisp texture and tangy vegetal taste. Some folks compare it to green beans, but I disagree. It’s got a wonderful bright, citrusy note all its own. It’s also a slimy food, but don’t worry. It never feels sticky when you bite it.

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When pairing cactus with green tomatoes, which also have a tart acidic flavor, you get an impressive salsa. This easy recipe combines several Southwestern flavors: chili peppers, cilantro, white onion, roasted corn, and even a splash of tequila (optional). The salsa is best when left to rest in the fridge for about 30 minutes to 1 hour after its made, and then eaten fresh. It will keep in the fridge for about a week.

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  • Prep: 15 minutes
  • Cook: 15 minutes
  • Yield: Makes 3 cups.

If your farmers market doesn’t sell cactus, you can find it in most Latin grocery stores in the produce aisle, either whole or already prepped and chopped. You can also buy it in a jar in the Mexican food aisle of your grocery store, but fresh paddles taste far better. You’ll want fresh paddles for this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 2 nopales cactus paddles, spikes removed*
  • 2 green tomatoes, cored and cut in half
  • 1/2 large, white onion, peeled and cut into 4 chunks
  • 2 jalapeños, red or green, more or less to taste
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 cup frozen corn**
  • 1 cup cilantro, stems removed
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 2 hot chili peppers, stems removed, more or less to taste
  • Juice from 1/2 a lime, about 1 Tbsp
  • 2 Tablespoons tequila, optional
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • Salt to taste

*This recipe is designed for the whole paddles, but you may be able to make it with bagged cut cactus for nopalitos if that's all that is available in the market. Just arrange them close together on the roasting pan while you roast the vegetables so they don't dry out.

**You can also use freshly cooked corn or grilled corn, stripped from the cob. In this case, skip the corn roasting in step 2, and just add to the salsa in the last step.

Method

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1 Preheat oven to 425°F. Working with a large sharp knife with a fairly straight edge, scrape off any remaining prickles or nubs on the cactus paddles. Cut the paddles crosswise into 1-inch thick strips. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil. Place cactus, green tomatoes, white onion and jalapeños on the baking sheet in preheated oven for 12 minutes. The cactus should still be slightly crisp when pierced with a fork.

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2 Heat a cast iron or stick-free skillet with 1 teaspoon olive oil over medium heat on the stove top. When the pan is heated, add frozen corn and spread out in an even layer. Do not stir the corn. Allow it to roast in the hot pan for about 2 to 3 minutes. The corn should become browned and roasted. You can check by gently flipping a few pieces with the corner of a spatula. When corn is browned, stir and roast for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Place corn in a small bowl and set aside.

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3 Place the oven roasted vegetables in a food processor with the cilantro, garlic, lime juice, tequila, oregano and salt. Puree until nearly smooth, about 30 seconds. (Be careful when you remove the lid on the food processor—the heat released from the peppers will zoom up your nose and down your throat, so don’t stand directly over the open food processor.)

4 Pour the salsa into a serving dish. Stir the roasted corn into the finished salsa. Allow to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Serve with tortilla chips.

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