Long a stable of Mexican cooking, cactus is growing more popular north of the border--for tasty reasons.
Credit: Randy Mayor

First came the chile peppers―jalapeño, serrano, and the occasional poblano―followed by bunches of pungent cilantro and baskets of paper-skinned tomatillos. Now, another staple of the Mexican kitchen has arrived―the tender pads of the nopal, or prickly pear cactus. And while nopal is available year-round, it's juiciest and most tender in the spring.

You may have seen the plant's distinctive oblong green pads (also called paddles) in your grocery's specialty-produce section. When cooked, the pads have the texture and taste of sautéed bell pepper with a hint of green bean flavor. Nopal also contains a sticky substance, similar to that of okra, which makes this ingredient a natural thickener when added to long-simmering soups and stews.

Because the prickly pear cactus requires little water and is thoroughly protected by its spines, it has long flourished without irrigation in desertlike conditions. A plentiful, no-maintenance crop, the nopal was used as a wild complement to the cultivated New World diet of corn, beans, rice, and squash. It's one of the traditional cornerstones of cuisine and culture in the arid regions of Mexico and the American Southwest, where it's prized for its culinary versatility.

Texans probably know all this: After all, the prickly pear cactus was named the official state plant in 1995. Who knows, maybe cactus will even be just as popular as bell pepper in a few years. Stranger things have happened―did we ever think salsa would replace ketchup as the most popular condiment?

Cactus Pointers

The cactus paddles or pads are called nopales when whole and nopalitos when diced or cut into strips.

Select nopales that are firm and about the size of your hand.

Wrapped in a plastic bag or plastic wrap, nopales will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

Much like okra, nopales tend to be a bit gooey; this can be minimized with the right cooking technique. We tried roasting, blanching, and boiling, and found that boiling gave us the best result.