Nopales are part of Mexico's psyche. Nomadic Mexica priests had a vision that wherever they came upon an eagle eating a snake while standing on a nopal (cactus), whose roots pierced a rock, there is where they would found their nation.
That site is now Mexico City, the largest city in the western hemisphere.
The Aztecs cultivated nopales and ate them. The Spaniards were introduced to them but still considered them a curiosity. Fray Bernardo de Sahagún, in his General History of the Posessions of New Spain relates:
"There are some trees in this land which are called nopalli...This tree is monstrous: the trunk is made up of its leaves, and the branches are also made up of these same leaves; the leaves are wide and thick, they have a lot of juice and they are viscous, the leaves have thorns...the leaves of this tree can be eaten raw or cooked"
Today nopales or are scrambled in with eggs and chile; they are grilled and put into salads, they are served in fine restaurants and humble ones; they are used in soups and even tamales. In 1998, on a trip to Xalapa, Veracruz, while we stayed with the Cano Family on Avenida Revolucion, I made several forays into the neighborhood and its environs. Around the corner from Mercado Jauregui in Xalapa, Veracruz, some of the street vendors sell neatly stacked perfectly cleaned green nopal paddles. I saw one young man absent-mindedly picking each spine off by hand. Another young woman sold them cleaned and whole, but she also offered the nopales diced with onions and garlic conveniently bagged and ready to take home and fry up.
When buying nopales make sure they are firm, unblemished and medium-sized. To clean, spread a few thicknesses of newspaper out on a counter and lay one paddle flat. With a paring knife slice the protruding spines off the nopal a few at a time. Carefully push the spines off to one side with your knife and continue until all the spines are off. Slice the perimeter of the nopal off and check again for any spines that may be clinging to it and remove them...OR... buy a jar of already-cleaned and preserved cactus!
The nutritional value of cactus can be summed up in two words, fi-ber. Cactus contains 4% fiber, 0 fat, 1% carbohydrate. Mexico's flamboyant gourmand, Sebastian Vérti, dedicated an entire cookbook to the nopal , El Nopal: Príncipe de la Campiña Azteca -- Cactus: Prince of the Aztec Land. Filled with recipes for salads, soups, ceviches, pizzas, tamales, drinks and desserts, the book is a paean to how prevalent nopales are in Mexico.
One of the enduring memories of my childhood is: I'm riding in the car with my mother along the semi-urban streets of 1950s Los Angeles, California. She slams on the brakes and pulls over. I look up and see an open field to my right and on the edge of it there is a stand of wild-growing cactus, sitting there, not being cared for by anyone. My mother tells me to stay in the car, gets out and goes around to the trunk and opens it, takes out a knife and starts to hack away at the the plant. She piles about ten pounds of cactus leaves on newspaper she kept in the trunk just for that purpose -- always ready. She closes the trunk, gets back in, and drives off.
Ensalada de Nopales / Tri-Color Cactus Salad
1/2 White onion in small dice
2 Roma tomatoes, small dice
2 T. Pickled jalapeño, minced
1 jar Nopales/cactus (28 oz.), drained, dried, cubed
2 T. Cilantro, minced
2 T. Olive oil
3 T. Apple cider vinegar
1 tsp Kosher salt
Butter lettuce leaves
Place all ingredients except lettuce in bowl. Pat the strips of nopales on paper towels and roughly line up and give them a cross cut, making cubes. Toss everything but the lettuce and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Arrange butter lettuce leaves in serving dishes or platter. With a slotted spoon spoon the salad over the lettuce leaves. Serves 4.