Opuntia, commonly called prickly pear, is a genus of flowering plants in the cactus family Cactaceae. Known is Mexico as Nopales, these “paddles” are the juicy, crunchy, edible partss of the prickly pear cactus. Pricky pear cacti have been cultivated and eaten for centuries throughout Latin America. These Simple Nopales Tacos with Cotija Cheese showcase this vegetable perfectly.
- 5–6 fresh, young, green cactus paddles (about 1 ½ lbs)
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil (divided)
- salt and black pepper
- ½ large onion (peeled and cut into ½” dice)
- 2–3 fresh jalapeños (stemmed, halved, seeded, and cut into ½” dice)
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 10–12 (4‑inch) tortillas (warmed before using)
- crumbled cotija cheese (to taste)
- cilantro leaves (to taste)
- lime wedges (optional)
Prep the Nopales: Wearing gloves, lay the cactus paddles on a flat surface. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut off the thorns and the little knobs where future thorns would sprout. A thin flexible knife such as a filet knife works best. Try to keep the knife parallel to the flesh when shaving off the thorns rather than gauging them out with the tip of the knife. Next, cut the outer perimeter (about ⅛ inch) from each of the cactus paddles. Once they are thorn free cut them into ½” dice and set aside.
Cook the Nopales Tacos filling: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the pan is very hot swirl in 1 tablespoon oil then add the diced cactus paddles. Let them sear in place without stirring for about a minute until charred in places. Then stir well and let it char some more undisturbed. The diced cactus paddles will change from bright green to drab, olive green as they cook. Once they are nicely charred all over transfer them to a large bowl. Season lightly with salt and black pepper.
Let the skillet get good and hot again then add the remaining oil along with the diced onions and jalapeños. Cook them in a similar manner as the diced cactus paddles letting them get nicely charred. Add the cumin seeds and red pepper flakes for the last minute or two of cooking, then transfer everything to the bowl with the charred cactus. Toss the mixture until combined, then season with a little more salt and black pepper as needed.
Assemble the Nopales Tacos: While the cactus mixture is still warm serve it immediately on warm tortillas topped with cotija cheese, cilantro, and lime wedges on the side (if using).