Nopales tacos are a thing in Mexico, as well as here in the United States. Nopales are the tender young cactus paddles from the prickly pear, and in these tacos, I’m serving them as carne con nopales, a thick stew of meat, chiles and cactus. It’s a great way to get to know this crunchy, tart and nutritious vegetable.
Nopales, pronounced “no-PAHL-es,” are popular all over Mexico, and have been eaten there since antiquity. The paddles, stripped of their many spines, are high in vitamins and minerals, and can help lower blood sugar.
Chances are if you are making nopales tacos, you’ll start with pre-cleaned cactus, which are available in most Latin markets and in some larger supermarkets.
But if you’re starting with paddles right off the plant, here’s a video on how to clean nopales. My recipe calls for pre-cooked nopales, and I’ll go over that in the instructions below, but there are lots of options for prepping them; I go over a bunch of ways to cook nopales without their inherent slime here.
The filling for these nopales tacos is my rendition of carne con nopales, meat with cactus paddles. It’s pretty straightforward, and is an amalgam of a few recipes I make on the regular.
First, you boil the nopales with a pinch of baking soda to remove the slime, known as babas in Mexico. You add that to ground meat — any meat works, although I used ground venison here — and then mix in one batch of my fire-roasted salsa.
Let it all cook down until it’s not too soupy — you don’t want it too wet or it will break your tortillas — and serve simply, with just some cheese and cilantro, maybe a hit of lime.
If you want to make this vegetarian, you can leave out the meat, or, better yet, sauté some roughly chopped mushrooms and add that to the mix.
I prefer homemade corn tortillas with nopales tacos, but you could use flour tortillas, too.
- 1 pound nopales, cleaned and diced
- A pinch of baking soda (optional)
- 4 husks from tomatillos (optional)
- 4 plum tomatoes, cut in half
- 1 white onion, cut in quarters
- 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 2 serrano or jalapeno chiles
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano (optional)
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 1 pound ground meat (beef, pork, venison, turkey, etc)
- 1 tablespoon lard or oil
- 12 to 16 corn tortillas
- Cheese (cotija or queso fresco), for garnish
- Chopped cilantro, for garnish
- Lime wedges, for garnish
- Start by bringing about 6 cups of water to a boil and setting a comal, griddle or cast-iron skillet on high heat. Set a frying pan on another burner, add the oil and turn the heat to medium.
- When the comal is hot, set the quartered onions in the center, the unpeeled garlic on the edges and the chiles and tomatoes wherever there is room. You goal is to char the cut sides of the tomatoes and onions, and the skins of the chiles and garlic.
- When the water boils, add salt and the nopales. Boil these for 10 minutes, then add a pinch of baking soda. The water may well froth a lot, so keep an eye on things so it doesn't boil over. Boil the nopales for a total of 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water.
- As everything else is either charring or boiling, brown the ground meat in the frying pan. It should be nicely browned by the time the nopales and vegetables are ready. If it's done early, drop the heat to low.
- Once the nopales are cooked and rinsed, add them to the pan with the meat. Once the vegetables are nicely charred, remove the skins from the chiles and garlic, roughly chop the onions and put it all in a molcajete or food processor with the oregano and process into a chunky salsa. Add this to the pan with the meat and nopales.
- Stir well and cook it all over medium-low heat while you heat up the tortillas on a comal or in a microwave, over the burners or whatever. Once everything's all ready, serve the carne con nopales with a slotted spoon to drain off any excess moisture and top with the cheese and cilantro. Serve with the lime wedges.
Tips and Variations
- To make this vegetarian, skip the meat, or better yet, replace the meat with chopped mushrooms.
- If you prefer, these are also good on flour tortillas.
- You could skip the fire-roasted salsa and go with a red chile sauce, like the one in my recipe for carne con chile, or for my red enchiladas.
- You could go green here and replace the tomatoes with tomatillos, and add a roasted poblano or Anaheim chile to the salsa.