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.
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!
- Mexican Lasagna
- Grilled Mexican Street Corn (Elote)
- Mexican Three Bean Salad
- Slow-Cooker Mexican Pulled Pork Tacos
- Mexican Shrimp Cocktail
Nopalitos with Tomatoes and Onions
- 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
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.
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.
Season, then serve:
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.