While many see versatile maiz as the foremost plant in Mexican cookery, cactus occupies a more symbolic role for many Mexicans.
You can literally see this by examining the Mexican flag, which depicts a prickly pear cactus atop which an eagle perches as it devours a serpent. The image commemorates how the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in the 1300s. According to legend, the wandering Aztecs would know where to build their new city when they saw an eagle perched on a cactus.
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“The cactus is our biggest food representation in Mexico and a history you grow up learning since you’re a kid,” said Alex Tellez, executive chef of Sor Ynez, a traditional Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia.
“The cactus is our biggest food representation in Mexico and a history you grow up learning since you’re a kid.”
Nopales were a staple of Tellez’s childhood kitchen, though he didn’t see many cactus plants around his native Mexico City. Yet every time he visited extended family in nearby towns like Tlaxcala, Tellez got to witness firsthand the formidable task of harvesting these prickly succulents.
“It was very intimidating,” he said. “I remember my grandfather and uncles would take these super-sharp machetes, slice [the cactus] pretty fast and catch it with a basket. Then my grandma would actually hold the cactus and clean and slice it herself.”
Chef Alex Tellez (Neal Santos)
From these ferocious origins, Tellez’s grandma, aunts and grand-aunts would manipulate the fiber- and antioxidant-rich nopales into every edible form imaginable. Blitzed into smoothies with celery, parsley, cucumber and fresh orange juice for all-day hydration; sliced raw to lend sour, crunchy freshness to salads; sautéed and stirred into soup or scrambled eggs; quick pickled (en escabeche); or braised or grilled then nestled into tacos — ¡lo que quieras, por supuesto!
Un trabajo de amor
You don’t need to wield a machete while mining the supermarket produce aisles for nopales; (thankfully) you’ll usually find tongs near the display. When selecting cacti, Tellez recommends looking for medium or large flat paddles, which are easier to trim. However, you do “need to feel comfortable and confident touching the cactus to clean it,” Tellez said. (I’d also recommend a clean pair of gardening gloves.) To remove the spines, hold the end of the paddle and scrape them off opposite their growth direction using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler.
You don’t need to wield a machete while mining the supermarket produce aisles for nopales.
Cactus bears likeness to moisture-rich okra — not least of all for a characteristically slimy texture, which some find off-putting. (Cacti produce this gooey liquid, known as mucilage, to seal water inside, which helps them survive desert-dry conditions.) To remove this, Tellez suggests sautéing the nopales for a good five minutes over medium-high heat, then rinsing them thoroughly in the sink. From there, your imagination is the limit.
At Tellez’s year-old Philly restaurant, seared nopales top tlayacos (boat-shaped masa cakes) with black beans and queso fresco. He loves adding pickled cactus (recipe below) to carnitas, birria or barbacoa tacos to cut through the fattiness of the meat. He also steams chopped nopales in banana leaves with eggplant, squash and celery root for a vegan mixiote; adds raw slices to a bright radish salad with crumbled feta, lime juice and olive oil; and purées raw cactus along with cilantro leaves to mix into Sor Ynez’s chewy, green-hued tortillas. It’s all part of a larger commitment to educating diners about the traditional, vegetable-rich cooking of Tellez’s Mexico.
“We make traditional Mexican dishes, which have a lot of vegetables, and people were so confused at the beginning, like ‘I thought you were a Mexican restaurant!'” he said. “I’m taking this experience as a chance to educate people and share knowledge with all these different ingredients. We keep getting busier, so I think it’s working.”
A family recipe
Perhaps Tellez’s favorite use for nopales — and the way he converts the cactus-averse — is through his grand-aunt’s nopales en escabeche, a sharp, salty quick pickle that’s seasoned with Mexican oregano, garlic and black peppercorns. For best results, allow it to sit for three days in the fridge.
Recipe: Nopales en Escabeche (Pickled Cactus)
By Alex Tellez, executive chef of Sor Ynez, Philadelphia
30 minutes, plus ideally 3 days of pickling time
- 2-3 large cactus paddles (4 cups diced)
- Olive oil, as needed
- 1 large carrot, sliced into 1/8 inch coins (see Cook’s Notes)
- 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup salt
- 4-5 whole peppercorns
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or 1 sliced serrano chile (optional, for heat)
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (see Cook’s Notes)
- 1 bay leaf
- Place the cactus paddle flat on a large cutting board lined with paper towels. Wearing clean gardening gloves, hold one end and scrape off the spines with a vegetable peeler (my preferred weapon) or a sharp knife held at an angle. Scoop up the trimmings in the paper towel and discard. Dice the cactus into bite-size pieces or slice it into strips if you plan to use the pickles for tacos. Taste one; it’s kind of like sour bell pepper, right?
- Heat a large skillet over medium high. Add a few teaspoons of olive oil and sauté the cactus for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until it has lost its bright green color and released a good amount of gooey liquid. Remove from the heat, then tip the cactus into a colander and rinse it for a good 30 seconds under cold water. Add the rinsed cactus to a large heat-proof bowl and set aside.
- Return the skillet to medium and add a bit more olive oil along with the sliced carrots and onion. Sauté until the vegetables just start to soften, 2-3 minutes, then add them to the bowl with the cactus.
- In a medium saucepan with a lid, add the vinegar, water, salt, peppercorns, garlic, oregano and bay leaf. Stir to begin dissolving the salt, cover with a lid and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Pour the hot brine over and let the vegetables cool to room temperature with the liquid. You can eat them right away or transfer the cooled pickles to deli containers or mason jars, filling them to about 1 inch from the top and taking care to fully submerge the vegetables. Seal, then place them in the fridge. (For more flavorful results, Tellez suggests letting the pickles sit at least overnight — or ideally three days.)
“It has to be Mexican,” Tellez says of the oregano.
I like to cut the carrot on a slight bias for prettiness.
My local Mexican grocery store not only sells cactus paddles but also bags of blessedly pre-trimmed and pre-diced cactus (in case you’re not feeling up to the task of cleaning these prickly buggers).
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