Gustavo Arellano is the food editor and columnist for the OC Weekly. He writes the popular Ask a Mexican column. He grew up in Anaheim, California where his parents still live. His father, Lorenzo, grows prickly pear cactus, or nopales. His mother, an excellent cook, uses nopales for a side dish or a salad.
Nopales Salad (From Epicurious)
6 nopales (cactus leaves)
1 onion, quartered
4 garlic cloves, crushed
3 plum (Roma) tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated queso fresco or ricotta salata cheese
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 Tablespoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt to taste
1. To prepare the nopales: If necessary, use a small sharp knife to remove any residual thorns or nodules from the cactus leaves. Bring 8 cups salted water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the nopales, onion, and garlic and reduce the heat to medium. Cook at a brisk simmer until the nopales are tender, about 6 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Discard the onion and garlic. Cut the nopales into strips about 1/2 inch wide and 2 1/2 inches long. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
2. To make the dressing: Whisk the vinegar, oregano, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season with salt.
3. Mix the nopales, tomatoes, red onion, and cilantro in a medium bowl. Add as much dressing as you like (refrigerate any remaining dressing for another use) and toss. Divide the salad among 6 salad plates and top with the avocado and queso fresco. Serve immediately.