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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Cactus and Corn Salsa Recipe

  • Prep time: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 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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12 Comments

  1. Jan

    I’ve seen catcus at Thrifty’s and always wondered what the heck you would do with them. This salsa sounds like a good starting point.

  2. Kathy - Panini Happy

    I *love* nopales – probably my top food find of the past two years! What a great idea to pair it with sweet corn, I can just imagine devouring this salsa.

  3. HK

    made it tonight. it was beauuuuutiful. you can feel a bit of heat in your throat but it’s not too spicy at all. interesting flavors that i’ve never tasted before!

  4. Dawn | KitchenTravels

    Mmmmmm… yum! I bet this salsa would be incredible paired with pulled pork soft tacos. Looking forward to trying this.

  5. Mike Brown (UK)

    Sounds wonderful, however in England it is kind of difficult to find cacti without raiding the local botanical gardens. Is there anything else that could be substituted for that, what has a similar taste or texture? Things like lady fingers spring to mind but not too sure on this one. Your advice would be much appreciated as the dish sounds great, thanks.

    Mike, I’m not familiar with lady fingers (other than the cookies). There really isn’t another vegetable that has quite the same texture or flavor as a cactus. You could try using 2 more green tomatoes instead of the cactus (a total of 4 green tomatoes) for a green tomato salsa. But it won’t be quite the same. ~Amber

  6. Marl

    Davis ? The Market I mean?

    Marl, I found them at the Sacramento downtown farmers market. ~Amber

  7. Roberta Decker

    Not meaning to sound stupid or anything but I have a kitchen full of catus but have no idea if they are what you are talking about. Some have the large paddles like you say and they reach clear to the kitchen ceiling.Am I safe to use what I have in the kitchen or is there a way of knowing what I have? I have never seen catus for sale in any of our stores around here so I hope I can use them without making someone sick. Any thoughts?

    Roberta, most of the decorative cacti are likely not the prickly pear cactus meant for eating. Please consult an expert. We definitely don’t recommend eating your house plants. The cactus is commonly referred to as prickly pear, nopal, or tuna. ~Amber

  8. Mely

    Hello Elise,

    As a long time subscriber of your website, I was happy to see this recipe in my email. We need to showcase more the humble (Nopal) cactus paddles.

    I have several recipes in my blog but we can always use more creative ways to use the nopales like in this great salsa. Even for me is a new way to use nopales.

    Thanks for sharing it.

    Mely

    Mely, I agree! I love cactus. So glad you like this recipe.Enjoy! ~Amber

  9. Mickey

    Just made this for dinner and used it as a sauce along side some pork tenderloin-just really superb. I posted my version and a link to you on my blog Kitchen Inferno. Thanks for such an unusual salsa.

  10. george

    I have all the ingridients and those cactus padles with the cactus pear are actually growing in front of me and they are maybe tons of them because im on holiday in Sicily,Palermo.But unfortunately I have no blender can I puree the salsa with something else please tell me.

  11. j j

    are all cacti edible?

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