May 4, 2012

The Prickly Bits

Have you had cactus paddles - aka nopales - before?  They have a mild flavor not unlike green beans and kind of squeak between your teeth when you bite into them too.  Nopales are a bit notorious for having some of that slime factor the way okra does, but there are ways to get around that.  Namely, grilling.  I couldn't tell you why or how (the high heat might have something to do with it), but I can highly recommend you try them.  Other excellent ways to avoid the slime factor include staying away from canned or bottled versions of this vegetable, it's best fresh.

I've been seeing a lot more of these nopales pop up in the mexican produce market I frequent, so I assume spring must be their peak season.  The paddles are roughly the size of a large hand and usually still have their nasty spines intact.  You can also find them prepped and chopped in bags too, but those ones are hard to grill (obviously).  A simple swipe of a paring knife down the face and along the edges is all it takes to clean them up, and if you're careful, you'll only get poked maybe once or twice.  No big deal.

Now back to the grilling.  It's what brings this salad together.  The whole dish is kind of like a lighter version of mexican grilled corn, without the mayonnaise and the corn getting stuck in between your teeth. The nopales and corn get tossed with a zippy lime, cumin and olive oil dressing and then it's topped with chopped cilantro and mild queso fresco.  A little sliced avocado for good measure and you're good to go.

We enjoyed this as a salad, but you could absolutely go the taco route too if you're looking for more of a meal.  Either use this as the filling on its own and top with a good smoky-spicy hot sauce, or add in some cubed sautéed sweet potatoes and black beans.

As for me this weekend?  I'll just have to find room for more of this salad in between all the chips and salsa and grapefruit margaritas.  Oh yes, it's Cinco de Mayo!

Grilled Nopales and Corn Salad
Adapted from TheKitchn

If it's still a bit early for corn on the cob where you are, you can use frozen corn kernels and cook them in a hot skillet with a bit of olive oil to get a bit of that char going on. As for the nopales, I suppose you could use a stovetop grill pan but it's much more magical when cooked on an actual grill.  A little chile powder sprinkled over the top would be excellent as well.

4 servings

8 nopales, or cactus paddles
2 ears of sweet white corn
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
1 lime for juicing
a pinch of ground cumin
a handful of cilantro, chopped
1 avocado
1/2 cup queso fresco

Clean and prepare the nopales. Cut each paddle into 1/3-inch strips, cutting to almost, but stoping just short (about 1-inch) of the stem end. It should resemble a fan or a hand. Brush both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Shuck corn and brush with olive oil.
Grill the nopales and corn until soft and slightly charred. The nopales should take about 5 minutes on each side; similar for the corn. Let cool, then cut nopales into 1-inch slices and cut corn kernels off the cob.

In a large bowl, combine nopales, corn, lime juice, cumin, cilantro, and a light drizzle of olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, garnish with sliced avocado and queso fresco.

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