Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet owes its existence to two inspirations. The first was a conversation with my friend Maria who told me about a salad of grated jícama and beet dressed with freshly squeezed lime juice she makes for her boys. When she told me about it, I pictured the garnet color of beets set against the clean white of jícama, forming a palette of edible art. I accented the colors with the addition of carrots to make it even more brilliant. The second inspiration was a photo of a nopal cactus pad serving as the “plate” for a banana dish featured on the cover of the 2011 calendar by Muy Bueno Cookbook. I wanted to make this salad and I wanted to eat it off of a nopal, one of my favorite Mexican veggies.
Nopales are the young pads of prickly pear cactus and dished up in many Mexican restaurants as a salad or appetizer. I like to seek out new and unusual foods — part of the joy of being a foodie in Mexico — and learned to love nopales many years ago. Most of my friends make a face when I mention nopal and say something like, “Oh, it’s so slimy!” Well, yes it is if it is overcooked. The secret is to cook nopal only until it starts to get tender, but still has its crunch and most of its green color. If it has turned gray and has slimy threads oozing out, sorry, but you cooked it too long. And I have to say that en mi opinión, most Mexican cooks overcook nopales. You will have to cook it for yourself to see how fresh and crisp it can be.
See a past article from Cooking in Mexico on preparing jícama if you are not familiar with it.
Update: this recipe for Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet has been selected as the winning entry by Muy Bueno Cookbook for their calendar give-away contest. (Dec. 28, 2010)
Salad of Grilled Nopal with Carrot, Jícama and Beet serves 4
- 4 small, tender nopal cactus pads
- olive oil
- 1 large raw carrot, peeled and grated
- 1 large jícama, peeled and grated
- 1 large raw beet, peeled and grated
- freshly squeezed lime juice
- coarse sea salt
- Pre-heat your grill.
- Brush nopales with olive oil and grill no longer than 1 minute per side. (Thicker, more mature nopales may need more time.)
- Arrange grated vegetables on the nopales.
- Serve with a cruet of olive oil, wedges of lime and sea salt.
Nopal is from the Nahuatl word for pads, nopalli. A branch of the Uto-Aztecan language, Nahuatl is still spoken in Mexico today.
Many families have a few nopal plants in their yard to supply the table, and they are also common in supermarkets, large and small. Look for young, small pads that are bright green. Don’t worry about any cactus spines — they are removed at the grocery store.
Nopales are rich in fiber, vitamins A, C and K, as well as high in minerals. When eaten in a mixed meal, it is thought that nopales reduce the glycemic effect.
Avoid nopales that are in cans or jars. They will be gray and limp and will make a poor introduction to this great vegetable.