Nopalitos with Tomatoes and Onions

Nopalitos are chopped and cooked prickly pear cactus paddles. Here they're paired with sautéed onions, garlic, tomatoes, and jalapeños for a quick and healthy side that comes together in just 20 minutes!

Nopalitos with Tomatoes and Onions
Elise Bauer

What Are Nopalitos?

Nopalitos are the edible young paddles of the prickly pear cactus, grown throughout their native Mexico, the southwestern United States, and the Mediterranean (brought back by the conquistadores).

Where to Buy Nopalitos

The paddles are widely available in Mexican markets in the US, either whole (with spines) or prepared (cleaned, spines removed, chopped).

They are tasty cooked and are used in many traditional Mexican dishes. Here is a quick, easy, and delisioso nopalitos recipe prepared for me by my Mexican friend and caterer Arturo Vargas.

nopalitos
Elise Bauer

Do you have a favorite nopalitos recipe? Please let us know about it in the comments.

How to Select Nopalitos

Find nopalitos—also called cactus paddles or nopales—at the grocery store, Mexican specialty food stores, or farmers markets in regions where the prickly pear cactus is grown. Look for medium to dark green paddles that are firm and have an even thickness. If the paddles are soft, cracked, bruised, or wilted, they are not fresh.

The paddles may or may not have spines. Some stores sell them already stripped. Either way is fine, but if you buy nopalitos that still have their spines, you will need to clean them.

Where do Nopalitos Originate From?

We have Mexican cuisine to thank for nopalitos and many of the dishes that make use of them. The paddles come from the nopal, a native Mexican cactus known as a prickly pear cactus in America (it's the same plant prickly pears come from). Traditionally used as a culinary ingredient in Central America, the plant spread throughout North America and eventually around the world.

The plant was particularly helpful to sailors as they took it back to their native countries, because it helped prevent scurvy on the long ocean journeys. It's now prevalent in the US, particularly in states that border Mexico, and in the Mediterranean.

How to Prepare Nopalitos for Cooking

If you have nopalitos that came prepared with their spines, or glochids, removed, simply cut the into pieces if they weren't already cut. If the nopalitos still have their spines, remove them. Slide a sharp knife across the surface of the paddle, removing the spines and the black spots they grow from. Turn the paddle over and do the same on the other side. When the nopalitos are completely clean, slice them into pieces.

When you cut into the paddles, you'll release a liquid that makes the nopalitos slimy, kind of like okra. That's okay.

Cooking Tip for Nopalitos

It's okay to use the nopalitos while they're a little slimy in this recipe, but if you want to get rid of the slime, try boiling them for a few minutes, then rinse them. This should remove the slime. You can add the boiled nopalitos in Step 2 just as you would the raw ones.

More Mexican-Inspired Recipes to Try!

From the Editors Of Simply Recipes

Nopalitos with Tomatoes and Onions

Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Total Time 20 mins
Servings 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound nopalitos, stripped of spines, cleaned, and chopped

  • Extra virgin olive oil

  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced

  • 1/2 red onion, roughly chopped

  • 1 jalapeño pepper, stem and seeds removed, chopped

  • 1 medium tomato, roughly chopped

  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Method

  1. Sauté the onions, garlic, and jalapeño:

    Heat a tablespoon of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan) in a large sauté pan on medium high heat. Add red onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cook for a minute, stirring occasionally.

    nopalitos-tomatoes-onions-method-2
    Elise Bauer
  2. Add the nopalitos, then the tomatoes:

    Add the nopalitos. Cook for several more minutes. Then add the chopped tomato.

    Continue to cook until all vegetables are cooked through.

    nopalitos-tomatoes-onions-method-3
    Elise Bauer
  3. Season, then serve:

    Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

    Nopalitos with Tomatoes and Onions
    Elise Bauer
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
62 Calories
4g Fat
7g Carbs
2g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 3 to 4
Amount per serving
Calories 62
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 4g 5%
Saturated Fat 0g 2%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 99mg 4%
Total Carbohydrate 7g 3%
Dietary Fiber 3g 11%
Total Sugars 3g
Protein 2g
Vitamin C 15mg 77%
Calcium 198mg 15%
Iron 1mg 4%
Potassium 337mg 7%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.