I have a very, very productive nopal cactus in front of my house. So productive, in fact, that harvesting and processing its fruit can feel like a part time job in the summer/fall. Nopal is the common name for members of a group (the Opuntia genus) within the cactus family, with the plural being nopales. Usually however, I see nopales referring to the cactus pads specifically, with prickly being the fruit. If you see a big cactus with large flat "paddle" leaves with thorns and bright red fruit, it's an Opuntia cactus and is edible. Some are better tasting than others and there are also better times to harvest the cactus pads. See my past post on harvesting nopal cactus pads for more details. The best piece of advice is to be careful because the thorns on the fruit have a tendency to jump onto you!
This recipe is really just guidance, as the specific quantities aren't incredibly important. If serving as an appetizer or in tacos, which are probably the best uses, make about 1 medium cactus pad per person.
What I like about it is the dry heat method of pan-frying helps to limit the viscous quality that can happen with nopales (similar to okra). And, of course, cornmeal crunch is always appreciated. Feel free to play around with the cornmeal to flour ratio, herbs and spices, and dipping sauces. I have also thought about cutting the nopales into strips before battering and frying, which might help further reduce the viscous qualities and make for easier serving. Enjoy!
- Young/tender nopales pads
- 1 part medium-grind cornmeal (about 1/2 cup for 4 medium cactus pads)
- 2 parts all-purpose flour (about 1 cup for 4 medium cactus pads)
- Smoked paprika or chili powder (about 1 teaspoon for 4 medium cactus pads)
- White or black pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon for 4 medium cactus pads)
- Salt (about 1 /4 teaspoon for 4 medium cactus pads)
- Eggs, beaten (1-2 eggs for 4 medium cactus pads)
- Oil for frying (about 1/3 cup for 4 medium cactus pads)
- Remove thorns from cactus pads (see this post for information on removing spines). Set up a plate with paper towels to lay the nopales after you fry them.
- Mix cornmeal, 1/2 cup flour, spices, and salt on a plate. Set other 1/2 cup all-purpose flour on a different plate.
- Toss each cactus pad in pure flour mixture to lightly coat then dip in beaten egg and shake off excess. Dredge each egg-covered pad in the cornmeal mixture so that it covers all sides and set aside.
- Add oil to frying pan - oil should be about 1/4-inch high - and heat on high.
- When oil is hot, cook nopales about 2 minutes per side, or until browned, and set on paper towel. You may cook these in batches if needed, adding more oil as necessary.
- Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon and a dipping sauce such as aioli, romesco, or an herb blend (optional). Cactus can be cut into strips prior to serving.