Tomatillo salsa was just for starters for our last taco night. I made carnitas- style pork tacos with cumin slaw and these vegetarian cactus tacos with avocado cream and cotija cheese. Poblano rajas was the base for the taco filling- strips of seasoned poblanos cooked with charred sliced onions and spices. Poblano rajas are great as a side with meat, burgers, scrambled eggs, mixed with cream or cheese. Adding the nopal cactus strips made them a substantial and succulent taco with the creamy avocado and salty cheese.
Nopal (prickly pear cactus paddles) are similar to both aloe leaves and okra. They hold moisture in their fleshy paddles with the soluble fiber called mucilage. Cooked, they are a bit like a green bean and a bit like pickled okra, the tender crunch of the green bean and the silky tangy texture of pickled okra. They add a bit of body to soups, a bright crunch to huevos rancheros, and pickled, would probably be great in a Bloody Mary!
I’ve seen cactus in several forms in markets: canned in jars, de-clawed and diced in plastic bags, or whole with the larger spines removed but still a bit prickly. I usually try to buy them whole. Most vegetables start to deteriorate once they are cut at all and it can be hard to see their condition when they are wrapped in plastic. If you are shopping in a place with a lot of turnover in the produce department and a clientele that will buy enough pre-cut cactus to make you confident in its freshness, buy them. It will save you a step or two (and possibly a prick in the fingertip). But don’t be intimidated by the whole paddles. It’s a pretty simple matter to de-claw them at home; either stick a fork into the fleshier end and scrape them with a sharp paring knife or singe them over a gas flame until the spines are burned off. Once the spines are blackened, a quick rinse will wash away anything that is left.
Nopal Poblano Rajas
3 large poblanos
4 nopal paddles
1 red serrano for color
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
pinch Mexican oregano
pinch ground cumin (if desired)
salt to taste
Start by preparing the nopal. Using tongs, hold the paddle by the thicker end over a gas flame until any spines are singed. Rinse briefly to remove any charred bits of spine. Slice them on the bias into 1/4 inch strips.
Remove the stem ends and seeds from the chiles. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips. Remove the stem and root end from the onion and cut into thin strips.
Smash the garlic and mince into a paste.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the slices of onion to the dry skillet and cook, stirring often until the onions begin to char just a bit. Scrape the onions out onto a plate and set aside. Lower the heat under the skillet to medium low and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the chile strips, salt, garlic, and spices and cook for about 10 minutes or until the chiles are beginning to soften. Add the onions and the cactus strips, stirring to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally and watching that the vegetables don’t stick to the pan until the onions and peppers have collapsed into a silky sticky savory tangle and the cactus has lost its vibrant green color and becomes a soft olive green. Taste for texture- the cactus should still have a bit of a pop between the teeth but be very tender- and salt to taste.
Serve in a taco with corn tortillas, avocado and cotija. Or use as a filling for omelette, on top of a burger, with a smoky roast chicken.