A primer on cooking with cactus

When many see flexible maiz as the foremost plant in Mexican cookery, cactus occupies a more symbolic part for quite a few Mexicans. 

You can practically see this by examining the Mexican flag, which depicts a prickly pear cactus atop which an eagle perches as it devours a serpent. The graphic commemorates how the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan (now Mexico Town) in the 1300s. In accordance to legend, the wandering Aztecs would know where by to construct their new city when they saw an eagle perched on a cactus. 

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“The cactus is our biggest food stuff illustration in Mexico and a history you mature up learning due to the fact you might be a kid,” mentioned Alex Tellez, govt chef of Sor Ynez, a conventional Mexican cafe in Philadelphia. 

“The cactus is our major food items representation in Mexico and a heritage you expand up studying due to the fact you’re a kid.”

Nopales had been a staple of Tellez’s childhood kitchen area, though he did not see quite a few cactus crops about his native Mexico City. Yet just about every time he visited extended loved ones in nearby towns like Tlaxcala, Tellez acquired to witness firsthand the formidable job of harvesting these prickly succulents. 

“It was pretty overwhelming,” he stated. “I bear in mind my grandfather and uncles would get these tremendous-sharp machetes, slice [the cactus] quite speedy and catch it with a basket. Then my grandma would in fact hold the cactus and clean and slice it herself.” 

Chef Alex Tellez (Neal Santos)

From these ferocious origins, Tellez’s grandma, aunts and grand-aunts would manipulate the fiber- and antioxidant-wealthy nopales into just about every edible form conceivable. Blitzed into smoothies with celery, parsley, cucumber and new orange juice for all-working day hydration sliced raw to lend sour, crunchy freshness to salads sautéed and stirred into soup or scrambled eggs quick pickled (en escabeche) or braised or grilled then nestled into tacos — ¡lo que quieras, por supuesto! 

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Un trabajo de amor

You don’t have to have to wield a machete while mining the grocery store generate aisles for nopales (luckily) you will normally find tongs near the exhibit. When picking out cacti, Tellez recommends seeking for medium or substantial flat paddles, which are simpler to trim. Nonetheless, you do “need to come to feel relaxed and confident touching the cactus to cleanse it,” Tellez said. (I’d also endorse a clean pair of gardening gloves.) To get rid of the spines, hold the conclude of the paddle and scrape them off reverse their progress way employing a sharp knife or vegetable peeler.  

You do not want to wield a machete although mining the supermarket generate aisles for nopales.

Cactus bears likeness to dampness-prosperous okra — not minimum of all for a characteristically slimy texture, which some come across off-putting. (Cacti create this gooey liquid, regarded as mucilage, to seal water within, which aids them endure desert-dry problems.) To take out this, Tellez suggests sautéing the nopales for a superior 5 minutes above medium-large warmth, then rinsing them completely in the sink. From there, your creativeness is the restrict. 

At Tellez’s calendar year-aged Philly restaurant, seared nopales major tlayacos (boat-shaped masa cakes) with black beans and queso fresco. He loves including pickled cactus (recipe underneath) to carnitas, birria or barbacoa tacos to slash by way of the fattiness of the meat. He also steams chopped nopales in banana leaves with eggplant, squash and celery root for a vegan mixiote provides uncooked slices to a vivid radish salad with crumbled feta, lime juice and olive oil and purées raw cactus alongside with cilantro leaves to combine into Sor Ynez’s chewy, environmentally friendly-hued tortillas. It’s all section of a more substantial determination to educating diners about the standard, vegetable-wealthy cooking of Tellez’s Mexico. 

“We make regular Mexican dishes, which have a great deal of greens, and men and women have been so confused at the starting, like ‘I imagined you have been a Mexican restaurant!’” he explained. “I’m getting this knowledge as a prospect to teach men and women and share awareness with all these distinct elements. We retain having busier, so I think it is really functioning.” 

A family members recipe

Perhaps Tellez’s most loved use for nopales — and the way he converts the cactus-averse — is by way of his grand-aunt’s nopales en escabeche, a sharp, salty swift pickle which is seasoned with Mexican oregano, garlic and black peppercorns. For greatest results, let it to sit for a few times in the fridge.


Recipe: Nopales en Escabeche (Pickled Cactus)
By Alex Tellez, executive chef of Sor Ynez, Philadelphia

Prep Time

30 minutes, plus preferably 3 days of pickling time 


  • 2-3 significant cactus paddles (4 cups diced)
  • Olive oil, as necessary
  • 1 big carrot, sliced into 1/8 inch cash (see Cook’s Notes)
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 4-5 entire peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed pink pepper or 1 sliced serrano chile (optional, for heat)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (see Cook’s Notes)
  • 1 bay leaf





  1. Location the cactus paddle flat on a large slicing board lined with paper towels. Sporting clear gardening gloves, maintain 1 finish and scrape off the spines with a vegetable peeler (my most well-liked weapon) or a sharp knife held at an angle. Scoop up the trimmings in the paper towel and discard. Dice the cactus into bite-measurement items or slice it into strips if you strategy to use the pickles for tacos. Flavor a person it’s type of like bitter bell pepper, suitable?
  2. Heat a big skillet over medium higher. Increase a couple teaspoons of olive oil and sauté the cactus for 5 minutes, stirring commonly, until eventually it has lost its shiny eco-friendly colour and unveiled a fantastic amount of money of gooey liquid. Eliminate from the warmth, then suggestion the cactus into a colander and rinse it for a good 30 seconds under chilly h2o. Incorporate the rinsed cactus to a huge warmth-proof bowl and set aside.
  3. Return the skillet to medium and include a little bit much more olive oil together with the sliced carrots and onion. Sauté right up until the veggies just get started to soften, 2-3 minutes, then add them to the bowl with the cactus. 
  4. In a medium saucepan with a lid, incorporate the vinegar, h2o, salt, peppercorns, garlic, oregano and bay leaf. Stir to start off dissolving the salt, deal with with a lid and bring to a boil. Eliminate from the warmth. Pour the warm brine about and enable the greens interesting to place temperature with the liquid. You can take in them ideal away or transfer the cooled pickles to deli containers or mason jars, filling them to about 1 inch from the best and having care to thoroughly submerge the veggies. Seal, then location them in the fridge. (For more flavorful effects, Tellez implies permitting the pickles sit at the very least overnight — or preferably three days.)

Cook’s Notes
“It has to be Mexican,” Tellez suggests of the oregano. 

I like to slash the carrot on a slight bias for prettiness.

My neighborhood Mexican grocery keep not only sells cactus paddles but also baggage of blessedly pre-trimmed and pre-diced cactus (in case you are not emotion up to the process of cleaning these prickly buggers).

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