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Meatless Mondays: How to Make (and Shop For) Nopales

Look out for nopales, or cactus pads, at Canino Produce.
Look out for nopales, or cactus pads, at Canino Produce.
Photo by Gary Stevens

Houston is a mosaic of cultures, and its cuisine reflects that. With that in mind (and in honor of Meatless Monday), each week we’ll explore a new globally inspired vegetarian or vegan dish, and take a look at where to find its ingredients in Houston; discover other Meatless Mondays here.

This week we’re traveling to Mexico with nopales.

The nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear, is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The cacti boast two edible sections: the nopal (or pad of the cactus) and the tuna (or pear, which can be treated like a sweet fruit).

Slightly tart and super-rich in nutrients, the green nopal pads are often found in egg dishes, tacos, salads and stews, or grilled on their own; while the bright pink fruit of the cactus is often added to juices and those neon prickly pear margaritas we all love.

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To find nopales, head down Airline Drive to the cult favorite farmers' market, Canino Produce, 2520 Airline. The massive shop and open-air vendor market — keeping things fresh since 1958 — is open from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, offering a cornucopia of seasonal fruits, vegetables and all kinds of other things you’ll want to eat immediately. Bring cash and peruse the bazaar of dried chiles and sweet and hot peppers; discover herbal teas and hard-to-score items like squash blossoms (in season) and nopales; sip coconut water from the shell and sample fresh mangos from vendors; check out the $1 bin to get steals on just-turning produce to use that day; and hit the grocery section to shop for assorted grains and beans, farm-fresh eggs and local honey, oils and vinegars, dried herbs and spices, and Mexican candies and snacks. And before you leave, also be sure to check out the taco trucks rocking scratch-made tortillas with crazy good fillings like chicharrones, barbacoa and mollejas (sweetbreads).

But back to the nopales; when shopping for them, look for bright green pads and avoid any that look faded or too soft. Before cooking, the pads must be cleaned of their spines (here’s a handy how-to).

Once you're ready to go, try your hand at cactus salsa or nopales tacos; start your morning with nopales con huevos; or go for the gold with this recipe for nopal cactus with caramelized onion, guajillo chile and fresh cheese from highly revered chef and Mexican food authority Rick Bayless.

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