Let’s talk cactus. Depending on what food culture(s) you were raised in, you may be looking at this page thinking I’m off my rocker, but cactus is delicious. It’s sweet and crunchy, has a pleasant chew to it, and it’s very filling. Sure, you have to get through the cactus’s defenses — no plant wants to be eaten, and cactuses are serious about it — but unless you’re harvesting your own cactus the products you find in a grocery have generally been skinned, despined, etc. Much easier to get from raw ingredient to finished dish!
This is another recipe from Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s Mexico: The Cookbook, which I mentioned in my last post. Just to give a little more information about the cookbook, and why it’s so special: although authoritative Mexican cookbooks have existed before — Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless, for example, have written comprehensive and sensitive texts for a variety of skill levels and familiarities — Carrillo Arronte is the first Mexican author to release such an encompassing work for the American audience. If I wanted to, I could cook from it for a year and never get bored. But last week I became absolutely fixated on a couple of cactus salads that looked so, so good.
One problem, though: I’m in Ohio, in midwinter, and other than root vegetables, what vegetables I can get are often either flavorless or overpriced (or both; I’m looking at you, January tomatoes). So what was I to do? Bookmark this until summer, when I could get a tomato worth eating and when I’d have a better chance of finding some fresh cactus paddles? Hardly; I wanted that cactus now!
So I decided to try this with canned cactus and tomatoes, and let me tell you: it’s great! Canned vegetables get a bad rap too often. Sure, some aren’t worth eating — I’ve never met a canned green bean I like for example — but canned tomatoes are preserved at the peak of their ripeness, and canned cactus is basically a pickle, so no problems there. The fresh ingredients (cilantro, onion, fresh chiles) are usually high-quality even in the depth of winter, so you get a bright, tangy side dish that will definitely liven up your table.
Spicy cactus salad
Adapted from “Ensalada de Nopalitos Picante” in Margarita Carrillo Arronte’s Mexico: The Cookbook (Phaidon, 2014)
2 15 oz jars sliced nopales/nopalitos (cactus paddles)
1/4 c chopped white onion
1 c canned diced tomato, strained
1/2 c chopped cilantro
3 serrano chiles, seeded and minced (opt.)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 Tbsp lime juice
Kosher salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp)
Drain and rinse the jars of nopalitos. If they have any other flavoring vegetables included (slices of onion, small chiles), pick out and discard (but you don’t have to be a perfectionist about it).
Combine the nopalitos with all the other ingredients and toss to combine. Serve chilled or room temperature.
My husband specifically told me “you need to tell them them that this is really spicy.” So let it be known: this is really spicy; those serranos aren’t messing around. You should feel free to reduce how much chile you’re putting in, or even omit it entirely. (Though at that point you don’t have a *spicy* cactus salad, but your secret’s safe with me.)
Want to gild the lily? The original recipe actually calls for fried pork rind and for parmesan cheese. I know! So yes, some cheese — parmesan of course, or queso fresco or feta — would be lovely here, and would cut the spice a bit. And some sort of pork — bacon, pork rind, ham, whatever — could definitely make this into more of an entree salad, if that’s your style.