Familiar to some, exotic to others, cactus paddles (or nopales) have a mild but tart flavor and are surprisingly easy to cook. If you’ve been deterred from eating cactus because of the rumor that it has a slimy texture you should know that this rumor’s only half true. When cut into, raw cactus paddles do ooze a clear, tasteless and odorless gel that has a sticky, slimy texture (similar to aloe vera gel). When cooked, however, the gel disappears and the cactus paddles are crisp but tender.
Recipes often suggest boiling the slime away, but skipping this step and throwing the paddles directly onto a hot grill or pan works just as well. The direct heat evaporates the gel pretty quickly. While nopales that haven’t been boiled are a little bit chewier, they have a fresh, vibrant flavor. This flavor, which tastes a little bit like a green bean or tart green pepper, is great when tossed in with other ingredients like tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers and radishes.
In this refreshing salad, roasted cactus paddles are combined with raw tomatoes, red onion and cilantro and then tossed with tender shrimp. The salad can be served as a main dish for lunch or dinner or as an omelet filling for breakfast (with or without the shrimp). Roasted cactus salad is also quite good with thin strips of steak instead of shrimp.
Refreshing, light and flavorful, cactus paddles are an interesting and versatile ingredient. For best results, roast, grill or sauté the cactus paddles alone to get rid of the slime factor, then combine them with other veggies, meat or seafood. The combinations really are endless.
Servings: Approximately 4-6
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some markets sell trimmed and cleaned paddles, others sell paddles that still have thorns. If the cactus paddles still have thorns, use a pair of tongs or a thick towel to hold a paddle steady on a cutting board. Use a sharp knife or vegetable peeler to scrape the thorns off both sides of the paddle. Then use kitchen shears or a knife to trim a little bit of the edge off the entire perimeter of the paddle.
When all the paddles are trimmed, rinse them then cut into 1/2-inch squares.
Put the cactus pieces in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet – it’s important not to overcrowd the pan or there will be too much moisture and the gel won’t evaporate.
Drizzle with oil. Roast for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cactus pieces are tender and most of the gel and liquid in the pan has evaporated.
While the cactus is roasting, bring a pot of water to a boil. Add shrimp, and boil 3 minutes until pink all the way through. Drain.
Remove the cactus from the oven and toss with shrimp, tomatoes, red onion and cilantro. Add the remaining ingredients to taste. The salad can be served warm or chilled.
To sauté cactus instead of roasting it, sauté the pieces in oil over medium heat for a few minutes then reduce heat to low and cover, stirring occasionally, until the cactus has released liquid, about 5 minutes. Increase heat back to medium and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid is evaporated.
To grill cactus paddles, clean and trim the paddles but leave them whole. Brush with oil, then grill for around 6 to 10 minutes, slice and serve.