Cactus Salad with Grilled Nopales
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This cactus salad has fresh vegetables, strips of grilled nopales, and tangy chili lime dressing. Make this recipe for a delicious Mexican side dish.
The Mexican Cactus
If you live near a desert or have ever been to Mexico or Southwestern America, it’s likely that you have seen a cactus up close. There are hundreds of different varieties of cacti, and believe it or not, they are the only plant that is both a vegetable and a fruit!
The fruit portion of the plant is what grows on the top, after it flowers.
One of the most common species grown throughout the southwest U.S. and Mexico is the prickly pear cactus, also known as a Mexican cactus or a nopal cactus. Nopales have been part of Mexican cuisine for centuries.
This variety of Mexican cactus may be eaten raw, but most people prefer it boiled, fried or grilled.
The large, flat pads, also known as paddles, are rich in antioxidants and are a good source of fiber. The flavor of cooked nopales is similar to cooked green beans, and some believe it tastes like spring asparagus.
Cactus Salad Ingredients and Substitutions
- cactus paddles– Due to their spiny needles, most people prefer to buy the pads from a local farmer’s market If you’re unable to locate a source for fresh nopales, check the ethnic foods aisle of your local grocery store.
- serrano chili peppers– Serrano peppers are definitely hotter than jalapenos; by almost 50 percent! If you need a milder pepper, jalapeno or Anaheim chilies are great substitutes.
- lime juice and zest– If you don’t have any limes on hand, you can substitute lemon. The flavor will a bit different, but completely delicious.
How to make Chili Lime Dressing
This dressing is basically a spicy lime vinaigrette. Other than finely dicing the chili peppers, the only other thing you’ll need to do is zest and juice the limes.
After that, just measure the ingredients into a large bowl and whisk to combine! Salad dressings with dairy products in them, like Homemade Buttermilk Ranch Dressing, should always be kept in the fridge.
On the other hand, oil and vinegar based dressings are technically safe to store at room temperature. But honestly, you will always get better flavor after chilling it for a while before serving.
NOTE: Most of the spicy heat in peppers comes from the membrane and seeds. If you prefer less heat, feel free to remove and discard them before you make the dressing.
Making the Grilled Nopales
- Clean the paddles.
If you buy cactus pads with the needles already removed, skip this step and move on. If not, use a small paring knife or vegetable peeler to scrape and remove the thorns and any blemishes on the cactus.
Then, rinse them with tap water and use paper towels to pat them dry.
- Season and grill the pads.
Rub both sides with vegetable oil and season them with salt and pepper. Then, just set them aside while you preheat your grill.
When the grill is nice and hot (about 450°F.), place the nopales onto the grill and cook for a few minutes on each side.
NOTE: To prevent your cactus salad from having a mushy consistency, watch the pads closely to prevent them from over cooking. The should be cooked al dente, which means they should have a slight firmness.
- Prep the veggies.
I suggest waiting until after you grill the cactus paddles. Otherwise, your avocado will oxidize and start to turn brown. It’s still edible at that point, but it doesn’t look very appetizing.
- Add the dressing, toss the cactus salad, then serve!
What to serve with cactus salad
This dish can be served just like any other vegetable salad.
On its own, it’s light enough to be a starter or side salad, but with the addition of shredded barbacoa or strips of grilled ribeye, could easily become a main course salad.
Of course, it pairs perfectly with traditional Mexican cuisine, too. Make this nopales recipe for Cinco de Mayo, and serve it with some spicy green chile chicken enchiladas!
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Cactus Salad with Grilled Nopales
- 6 cactus paddles (nopales) trimmed
- 2 limes juiced
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tsp salt divided
- 1/2 tsp black pepper divided
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 2 small serrano chiles minced
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 4 Roma tomatoes cut into chunks
- 1 cup red onion thinly sliced (1/2 medium onion)
- 1 avocado pitted and cubed
- 1/3 cup cilantro chopped
- 1/4 cup cotija cheese crumbled
- Typically cactus paddles are sold with the thorns removed. If not, use a small paring knife or vegetable peeler to remove and discard thorns and any blemishes on cactus. Wash and use paper towels to pat the cactus paddles dry. Rub both sides with vegetable oil and sprinkle 1/4 tsp of salt and 1/4 tsp of pepper over all. Set aside on platter while grill is heated to 400°F.
- In a salad bowl, whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, remaining salt and pepper and cumin. Add the minced chiles and garlic. Allow to rest while grilling the cactus.
- Transfer cactus paddles to the hot grill. Cook each side for 4 minutes or until grill marks are visible. Remove from heat and allow to cool while you assemble the remaining salad ingredients.
- Add the tomatoes, red onion, avocado and cilantro to the marinated chile dressing. Toss to coat.
- Slice each cactus in half lengthwise. Stack both pieces and slice into 1/2 inch strips. Repeat with remaining paddles. Add to the salad and toss to mix. Serve immediately or chill for an hour.
- Sprinkle the cotija cheese on top before plating. Serve as a starter salad, with tortilla chips as an appetizer or with grilled grilled meats.
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
Great refreshing salad, yum. I never had this before, they taste like green beans!
Exactly my first reaction to eating nopales. Thanks Dave!
This is really amazing! I didn’t know cactus are edible! Can’t wait to try this!
This looks so delicious and looks so great! I can’t wait to make this!
I’ve never seen cactus paddles but now I’ll be on the lookout!
This has totally peaked my interest! This will be a fun dish to make with my kids.
I am so glad Jen!
I need to try this ASAP! It sounds incredible!
I need to try this grilled cactus salad immediately, it looks so good!
I’ve never tried cactus! Will add this to my must try list!