My son, Eli and I were down at my aunt's house in Santa Cruz spending a few summer days with the family. While there we usually shop local, which includes visiting the Mexican markets and fruit stands near their house looking for ingredients for our meals. During our stay I had it in my mind to make Eli's favorite salad of jicama and oranges. For some strange reason that day, the markets were out of jicama, but they did have large piles of nopales or cactus paddles.
When I was growing up in the small Central Valley town of Firebaugh, California, my grandparents had a big cactus in their backyard that my grandmother used for making a wonderful nopales salad along with other cactus dishes. Grandma Angela Salazar moved from Torreon, Mexico, as a baby and grew up to be a great cook. As a child, I spent many days following her around the kitchen helping and learning from her. My restaurant Mijita is actually named in tribute to my grandmother. She used to call me Mijita, meaning "little one" in Spanish. Family meals were an important part of my childhood when everyone spent time cooking together in the kitchen or gathered around the table to celebrate a holiday. Today a lot of my inspiration in the kitchen is rooted in what I learned from my grandparents.
When my grandmother prepared her nopales salad she would start by picking the cactus paddles from her yard. The best paddles were the small succulent ones and often she would have to climb a ladder to reach them. Then she would cut each one with a knife or yard
sheers for those that were even harder to reach. Then I would help her clean them, which was very difficult because the paddles have lots of stickers and we didn't wear gloves, so you can only imagine how much it hurt... especially as a small girl. After we picked out the stickers from the paddles, my grandmother would pick the stickers out of my hands. Today you can buy cactus paddles cut and ready to go, it's amazing how easy kids have it these days!
For my salad, I bought a bunch of paddles and proceeded to cube and tenderize them, sweating them with a few tablespoons of olive oil until their bright green color dulled to a muted shade, about 5 minutes. Then I chilled them down in the refrigerator for about a half hour before adding spring onions, lime juice, Serrano chile, more olive oil, cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. My recipe probably differs from what my grandmother used to throw together in her kitchen.
Cactus Paddle Salad
4 cups cactus paddles, cubed
2 bunches spring onions, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
juice of one lime
1 chopped Serrano chile
¼ olive oil
¼ cup chopped cilantro (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Eli was busy playing with his cousins and didn't help me cook this time around. When I finished making the cactus paddle salad, I served it with carnitas that I had slow cooked the day before, and with tortillas of course. I wasn't sure that Eli would like the nopales, nevertheless, I put a pile on his plate with the rest of his dinner. He didn't say anything; he just ate all of it, a sign to me that it had passed his approval. Grandmother Angela would have been proud!