As a child, reunions around the grill on the weekend were frequent. It could be at home with family or out with friends. Nonetheless, at least once a month, someone would host one of these gatherings. There, I would always run to get carne asada, quesadillas, and grilled spring onions. However, the one thing I would never be curious about but which generally made an appearance was the tender cactus paddle, better known as nopales or nopalitos. I think the goo that expels was something that threw me off. Now, I learn I was not alone in that road, that there are many who feel the same way. Yet, I don't remember exactly when I let nopales become part of my diet.
By 2011, cactus paddles and I had become good friends. Happily and full of pride, I would share them with anyone who would come home to have a Mexican bite. And I just remember one person who tried them and didn't like them. She ate them, but I could see they were not going to be her cup of tea. Now, if I compare my recipe repertoire from back then to my current one, clearly it was poor, and my options were limited back then. I would normally serve them in a salad. Aslo, one should take into consideration that finding them fresh in Europe wasn't easy those days. So, I would normally use them in their pickled presentation or preserved in a jar.
And even when returning to my Aztec land of origin helped me learn how to incorporate this plants in many more ways, it wasn't until we learned about the multiple health benefits offered by it that we truly embraced them and started to eat them almost on a daily basis, even when far away.
What is nopal and where does it come from?
It is true, all research points toward nopal being mexican. As a matter of fact, the name we has its origin in the nahua voice nopalli, even when the different indigenous languages have their own word for it. From the cactaceae family, the opuntia ficus-indica apparently arrived to Europe from the hand of the Spanish conquistadors who wanted to make the most of the Iberian peninsula land that was low-produce. They, as well, introduced it later to spain and Northern Africa. I, nonetheless, don't see any of them eating it as much.
The consumption of nopal is immensely popular all through the Mexican territory. It is however, very easily found everywhere through the continent. Thus, depending on where one is in the Americas, the name of the tender cactus paddle will change. For example, in Argentina, Paraguay, and ecuador, it is called “tuna”, while in Uruguay and Colombia it is called “higo tuna”. In mexico, the word “tuna” will refer exclusively to the fruit, the prickly pear. But we'll talk about that on another entry.
Data to Learn about Nopales
Its flavor is fresh and slightly acidic. They are available between June and October. The winter is when they will be scarce due to the cold weather and low temperatures. Hence, the most common way to eat it is on the grill, charred, and blanched. Yet, raw can also be eaten and it is delicious as well.
Among the most popular reasons to incorporate this cactaceae to one's regime are the health benefits, I must admit. Fully charged with antioxidants such as Vitamin A, B, and C, nopales are an excellent source of dietary fiber and hydration.
I reflect again. I think I find the moment when I came to peace with nopalitos.Discovering hey were great to lose weight because of said amount of fiber and low caloric intake and learning they help control blood sugar levels as well as cholesterol and triglycerides sounds like a great deal, doesn't it?
On Choosing, Buying, and Preparing Nopales
Everything is a lot easier than you'd think. Promise. To choose them, just select the vivid green meaty ones without any wrinkles. That is enough to guarantee freshness. Now, if you are in Mexico they can be easily found at markets and supermarket. Just be attentive to find them. Also, they will mostly be sold de-thorned, so they are clean and ready for you to rinse them and use them for your meal.
If you're abroad, it's a whole other story though. Specialized stores carrying Latin American products will be the best choice if not specific vendors near you. Some will sell them ready to be used, but my perception and experience say otherwise. So be careful when you clean them. But I will leave it at that for the moment, for I recently found a new tool to test and looks promising. If it's really the last panacea, I'll share everything about it.
Lastly, how to eat them. Well, there are some who will use them raw in juices, smoothies, and salads. In my experience, we consume them more if they are cooked. The easiest and most foolproof method might be grilling them, for the goo will disappear. Also, there are people who blanche them with different concoctions to cut the goo. A friend of mine taught me how to cook them, and this is the way I've done them ever since. After carefully cleaning all my paddles, I dice them and put them in a skillet. No fat, no water, nothing. Just a medium-high heat and patience. I let them cook in their own liquid -the viscous goo that will be expelled thereof. I let them dry but not stick to the pan. It's important to not let them toast. Then, just store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and use as needed.
And now, do you love nopales, or will you give them a chance?