Recipe: Nopales and beet salad

by Julie Snyder

Nopales SaladEach year at Thanksgiving, we test a new dish. Often they become a family favorite. Nopales and beet salad earned that status.

For centuries people in the Americas have harvested cactus, de-spining the fruit and the paddle like nopales. They chop up the leaves for salads and stews, and use the fruit's juice for drinks and candy.

High in vitamins A and C, as well as B complex vitamins and iron, cactus is showing up on restaurant menus around the country -- in salsas, scrambled eggs, quesadillas, salads and other dishes.

In 2009, it moved into fourth place on the Mintel retail flavor trend. You might wonder what it tastes like. Some liken the taste of nopales to green pepper, asparagus even green beans. I suggest you give it a try.

Our featured recipe grills the nopales and then combines them with beets and red onions topped with a vinaigrette for an unexpected and extremely pleasing taste sensation.

Nopales and beet salad

Prep time: 20 minutes | Total time: 2 hours | Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

• 4 medium-sized golden (or red) beets
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons lime, lemon or orange-flavored olive oil
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 1/2 pounds fresh nopal cactus paddles
• 2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 small red onion, cut into slivers

Marjoram Vinaigrette
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoons white vinegar
• 1 tablespoon lime juice
• 1/2 teaspoon marjoram
• 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Directions

Wash the beets and trim the tops to 2 inches. Don't trim the roots. Place them in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until tender, about 45 to 60 minutes, depending on size.

Remove the pan from the heat and let stand 15 minutes. Drain, peel and cut beets into thin wedges while still warm. Dress lightly with white wine vinegar and flavored oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.

While the beets cook, prepare the nopal cactus paddles. Lay a paddle on a flat surface. With a sharp knife, trim its base.

Trim around the outside edge of the paddle with the tip of the knife. Carefully slice the thorny nods from the trimmed nopal paddle. Clean nopal cactus paddle in water.

Cut the cleaned cactus paddle into 1/2-inch slices, widthwise, or diagonally across the paddle.

Preheat oven to 450 F. Place oven racks at the middle and highest positions.

Toss the cactus strips with the oil, salt and pepper. Place them on two foil-lined baking sheets in even layers. With one tray on each rack, roast for 10 minutes and switch the trays' position. Continue baking until the edges of the strips are crisp and the color is drab green, about 10 to 15 minutes. The strips will have shrunken slightly and will be dry.

While the cactus strips roast, make the Marjoram Vinaigrette. Wisk together the olive oil, vinegar, lime juice, herbs, salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the nopal strips, beets and red onion. Drizzle with Marjoram Vinaigrette and let stand for 15 minutes to combine flavors. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Cook's note

Nopales are the young, tender "paddle" leaves of the common prickly pear cactus of Mexico and the American Southwest. They're eaten as a vegetable all over Mexico and can be found in Latin grocery stores in the U.S.

My neighbor says that preparing the cactus is a combination of filleting a fish and petting a hedgehog. If you'd appreciate not dealing with these guys, you can find dethorned and chopped nopales in the produce section of many grocery stores.

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.