Ensalada de Nopales, also known as cactus salad or simply nopalitos, is a nutritious Mexican side dish full of Mexican flavor. It combines fresh nopales (cactus paddles) with tomatoes and onion to create a versatile dish bursting with flavor and nutrition.
My mother’s nopales salad can be enjoyed as a side dish, on a tostada, stuffed into a cheese quesadilla or taco, or mixed into omelets.
WHAT ARE NOPALES?
Nopales are the flat, oval-shaped pads or paddles of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia genus). They are a common ingredient in Mexican and southwestern cuisine where they are cooked or blended into agua fresca and jugos. A few more fun facts about nopales:
- Flavor: Their flavor is often described as tangy and slightly citrusy
- Texture: Nopales are known for their unique texture, similar to green beans, and release a slimy liquid, we call “baba,” when cooked
- Nutrients: They are a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, including vitamin C, magnesium, and calcium
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF CACTUS PADDLES?
Dishes with nopales can be found on restaurant menus throughout Mexico and nopal recipes are growing in popularity in the U.S. One reason may be due to their health benefits. Cactus paddles are believed to:
- Aid in digestion
- Help regulate blood sugar levels (glucose and insulin) and cholesterol
- Have anti-inflammatory properties, among other health-related benefits
INGREDIENTS FOR ENSALADA DE NOPALES
- Fresh nopales: these are typically sold as whole paddles or chopped in a one-pound plastic bag
- Oil: I like to use olive oil in this recipe
- Cebolla: white, green, or yellow onion work
- Garlic: a few cloves add a lot of flavor
- Tomato: any variety works well, I typically use Roma though
- Salt: this is really the only seasoning you need for this recipe, although some people like to add powdered chicken bouillon
- Cold water: add this at the very end to finish the cooking process
WHERE TO BUY NOPALES
Find these in Latin or Mexican markets, some grocery stores (in the fresh produce section), or harvested from prickly pear cactus plants. They are usually sold as whole paddles, which require cleaning, or cleaned and chopped in small bags.
TOOLS, SUPPLIES, AND EQUIPMENT
- Cutting board
- Large skillet or pan
- Wooden spatula
HOW TO MAKE THIS RECIPE
First, prepare ingredients: Peel nopales. If working with whole cactus paddles is new to you, check out my step-by-step guide on How to Clean Nopales. If using chopped nopales, make sure they’re about the same size as the onion and tomate (roughly 1 cm x 1 cm). Mince garlic.
Then, cook the nopales and onion: Prepare the pan with olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add nopales and onion. The nopales will begin to release a gelatinous (slimy) liquid. Continue to cook and move frequently with a wooden spatula until gelatinous liquid has been absorbed and nopales and onions are soft, then add garlic and mix well.
The cooked nopales will transform from a bright green to more of an olive green color and onions will become translucent.
Next, add tomato, season, and simmer: Add tomato, salt and water, then mix well once again. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust salt (a tu gusto) if necessary.
TIPS, TRICKS AND VARIATIONS
- Consider serving cactus salad on a warm corn tortilla and tossing in some queso fresco or queso panela and salsa
- For an extra burst of freshness, toss cooked nopales with chopped cilantro, diced avocados, and a sprinkle of jugo de limón (lime juice) in a large bowl
- For extra spice in your ensalada de nopal, mix in a chopped jalapeño pepper or chile serrano while cooking
LOOKING FOR MORE INSPIRATION?
- How to Clean Nopales
- Tijuana Caesar Salad
- Agua de Tuna (Prickly Pear Agua Fresca)
- Going Green with Cactus Ceviche
- Delicious Hibiscus Tostadas Recipe
- Jugo Verde (Mexican Green Juice)
- Sopa de Chayote Recipe (Creamy Chayote Soup)
- Chiles Toreados (Mexican Blistered Peppers)
Ensalada de Nopales (Cactus Salad)
- 1.5 pounds cactus paddles diced (about 5 large paddles)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil extra virgin
- ½ small onion diced
- 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
- ½ tomato
- ¾ tablespoon salt or to taste
- ½ cup water
- Rinse diced nopales well and strain.
- Prepare the pan with olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add nopales and onion. They will begin to release a gelatinous (slimy) liquid. Continue to cook and move frequently until liquid has been absorbed and nopales go from a bright green to an olive green in color.
- Add garlic and mix well.
- Add salt, tomato, water then mix well once again. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Serve warm.
A Note from Lola
- Make ensalada de nopales a day before a party or event. The flavors often meld together and become more pronounced when allowed to sit in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving.
- This cactus salad can be enjoyed hot or cold enjoyed as a side dish, on a tostada, stuffed into a cheese quesadilla or taco, or mixed into omelets.
Photography: Cacey McReavy (images 1-2 only)
Lola Wiarco Dweck
Lola is a Mexican-American recipe developer, writer, and cooking instructor who loves sharing her culture with the world. Growing up in California and spending summers in Mexico, Lola celebrates her family’s Mexican recipes and vibrant culture through Lola’s Cocina.