The Beauty of Grilled Nopales

A quick trim gets fresh cactus ready for dinner. Here's the simple recipe from Angie Vargas.

Photo: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

I grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, with a backyard filled with more than 200 nopales, or cactus plants. But as a kid, I wasn't a fan. My mother loved nopales—she even ate them raw and used them in smoothies—but I wasn't convinced. "I don't like nopales; they're slimy," I remember complaining to her. It wasn't until much later, after I had moved away to New York, met my husband, and had his family's grilled nopales, that I finally learned to appreciate the spiny villain of my childhood.

My sisters-in-law, who grew up in Puebla and are great home cooks, taught me a trick that has made me love nopales as much as my mother does. Before cooking them on a comal or on the grill, they cut the nopales so they look like hands with fingers; that way, the insides cook faster. They get pleasantly charred and smoky; the sticky texture cooks off, leaving the paddles tender and moist. It's like a vegetarian steak—it has a nice texture that you can really bite, and it has a beautiful, slightly tart flavor, accented perfectly with lime juice and salt.

These days, I don't have a backyard full of cactus, but that doesn't stop me. I'm lucky enough to live near several Mexican groceries that sell cleaned nopales, which cuts down on prep time. If all you can find at your local market are nopales with the spines still attached, don't worry—simply cut away the spines and trim the edges with a sharp knife, and they'll be ready to grill in no time.

Charred Nopales With Jalapenos And Spring Onions
Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis

Cook with Angie Vargas from The League Of Kitchens

Angie Vargas teaches Mexican cooking through the League of Kitchens, a culturally immersive culinary experience where immigrant women teach cooking classes from their home kitchens. Offered online and in person, each class offers opportunities for connection, instruc- tion, and cultural engagement. $60 per session,

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles