Nopales, or prickly pear cactus paddles, aren't often seen on menus around Richmond, even at Mexican restaurants, but Tio Pablo owner Paul Keevil and chef Martín Noriega gave Broad Appétit attendees a taste of the popular south-of-the-border food, which is also available at their Shockoe Bottom restaurant.
Cooking with cactus
The paddles, available at Latin American markets, have a flavor similar to green beans. They can be boiled, dipped in batter and fried or brushed with olive oil and grilled. They're often scrambled with eggs or added to salsas, tacos, soups, salads or casseroles. The pear part of the cactus is sweet, like a fruit.
Some research suggests that nopales can help lower blood glucose, so the cactus is seen as beneficial for people with diabetes. The paddles are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, rich in flavonoids, and a good source of dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, vitamin C and magnesium. American Indians historically used the cactus pulp to treat wounds and heal infections.
This month's recipe is contributed by Martín Noriega, chef at Tio Pablo (1703 E. Franklin St., 643-4828), which opened in March. Noriega, who is originally from Morelos, Mexico, grew up eating nopales at home. He also works in various positions at Millie's (co-owned by Paul Keevil), where he's been for 15 years. Keevil, who developed a love for Mexican food when he lived in Los Angeles and began taking trips to Mexico, notes that Millie's has always incorporated the cuisine into its menu. "We had often talked of opening a Mexican restaurant, and when the old Papa Ningo spot came up, it seemed perfect," he says. Tio Pablo's distinctive murals were designed by Keevil's wife, Linda Lauby.
- 10 fresh nopales paddles (prickly pear cactus)
- 1/2 head of garlic (remove outer paper and cut an entire head in half parallel to root)
- 4 whole cloves
- 1/2 white onion, unpeeled
- 3 bay leaves
- Pinch of salt
- 3 fresh tomatoes
- 4 jalapeños
- A whole onion, peeled
- Bunch of cilantro
- Fresh lime juice to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Queso fresco (Mexican cheese) for topping
To clean the nopales, place them on a cutting board and, with a flat knife, strip the spines off the cactus. (You will want to handle the paddles with tongs, as the spines can be painful.) Cut the cactus into 3-inch by 1/2 -inch strips, or into a large dice.
Bring a large kettle of water to boil and add the cactus, garlic, cloves, half onion, bay leaves and salt. Boil for 20 minutes. Strain the contents in a colander, rinse with cold water, and then remove the half onion, garlic, bay leaves and cloves.
Pick the cilantro leaves off the stems, then discard the stems and chop the leaves. Cut the remaining ingredients (tomatoes, jalapeños and whole onion) into a medium dice and mix with the cilantro and the cooked nopales. Add fresh lime juice, salt and pepper to taste and top with cubed queso fresco.