Anyone living in California has seen nopales before, even if they don’t realize it. Those cactus with the big oval paddles topped with spiky red fruit you see on the side of the road or invading your neighbor’s yard? Yup, that’s a nopal, also known as a prickly pear cactus. But unless you are from a Mexican family or are a Mexican-food aficionado, you may be shocked to hear that these spine-riddled cactus go down the throats of eager eaters every day. Sans spines, of course.
Nopal has earned its popularity not only because it’s delicious (more on that in a second), but also because it’s an incredibly healthy, medicinal plant. Long used in traditional herbal medicine, modern “western” medicine is even getting with the program. Research has shown that nopal may be effective at decreasing glucose, cholesterol, inflammation, and even hangover symptoms. And even if you don’t suffer from these afflictions, there is no doubt that its high fiber, vitamin C and antioxidant content make it a healthy part of any diet.
If I had it my way, the nopal cactus would be a regular headliner in every kitchen, as go-to a veggie as broccoli or lettuce. I’ve already posted a ROCKIN’ recipe (if I may say so myself) for prickly pear sorbet using the magenta-colored fruit on top of the nopal cactus. But the cactus leaves… oh the cactus leaves… how delicious they are! Once you get the spines off, each cactus leaf is amazingly juicy, tangy, and exquisite in so many different preparations — raw, boiled, blended or, my favorite, broiled. If you let it snuggle up close to a broiler and char a bit like you would bell peppers, you end up with a complex, caramelized flavor that really compliments the tangy undertone of the nopal.
I do nutrition counseling at a clinic in a Latino neighborhood of Oakland, so nopales come up in conversation at least five times a day. Many of my patients prepare nopal for breakfast — either blended/juiced with other veggies for a quick shot of vitality, or cooked with eggs for heartier fare. While the nopales are traditionally boiled before combining them with the eggs, my version of nopales con huevos brings the nopales even more into the limelight with a bit of smokiness and texture.
I hope you’re already running out of the house donned with gloves and a garden saw to steal some from your neighbor’s yard. Or if you are lucky enough to live close to a market like Berkeley Bowl or a Latino market, the small price you pay for store-bought, de-spined nopales more than makes up for itself.
Nopales con Huevos
3-4 nopal cactus leaves
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 Tbsp milk
1.5 cups crushed tortilla chips (preferably homemade from corn tortillas fried in a little oil)
Radish and avocado for garnish
Salsa or hot sauce of choice
Use a large, flat-bladed knife to scrape off any spines or rough spots remaining on the nopales. Rub both sides of the nopales with a teaspoon of oil. Mix the paprika with the salt and sprinkle over the nopales. Place on a pan under the broiler very close to the flame, about 8 minutes each side, until slightly bubbled and browned in places and tender inside. Chop into bite-sized pieces.
Heat 1 Tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Whisk the eggs with the milk and a pinch of salt and add to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and scramble gently for 1-2 minutes until almost no liquid egg remains but eggs are still moist.
Fold in the chopped nopales and tortilla pieces and serve immediately on a warm plate garnished with shaved radish, avocado slices and your favorite hot sauce or salsa.