The Perfect Pair

Nopales and Cotija Salad-Duo Dishes

Some things just go well together, and two of those things are a good salad and a great cheese.  The combination can be magical.  So much so, that occasionally you can forgo a drippy dressing if the cheese is just right.  Of course, the true magic of which we speak can only be properly achieved if said salad combines different flavors that bounce off the tongue and mesh naturally.  After having tasted a little something called nopales (or nopalitos) a few months ago, the sudden urge hit to test a recipe with these prickly pear cactus leaves.  Well, that was it.  We had no ideas really how to make it work.  The only way we can really get inspiration is by trolling a few grocery stores and markets to see what jumps out at us.  We literally picked up veggies that we enjoy on their own, threw them in the basket and said a prayer that this fusion salad would work.

It’s pretty exciting to deal with a tricky, unknown ingredient.  You never know what you’ll end up with, but it’s worth the effort.  We had a little cotija cheese in the fridge, and if you’ve been reading us for a while, you know we went on a really big cotija kick for a bit.  Back with a vengeance, the cotija cheese was just the thing to add the perfect level of salty flavor to this warm salad with colorful, naturally sweet vegetables, the crunch of the nopales and the bright tang of the cilantro dressing.  This simple, sweet vegetable salad with one of our favorite cheeses proved to be a good match.  Here’s to Deb at Kahakai Kitchen for her Soup, Salad and Sammie Sundays!

Nopales and Cotija 2-Duo Dishes

Nopales and Cotija Salad with Spicy Cilantro Vinaigrette – Serves 4-6

2 medium nopales, thorns removed and cut into 1/2-inch squares
2 beets, sliced
3 orange tomatoes, sliced
2 large sweet potatoes, sliced
1 red onion, sliced
1 avocado, cubed
4 ounces cotija cheese, crumbled
Olive oil
Kosher salt

1/4 cup grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 serrano pepper, chopped*
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, chopped
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lime
Kosher salt

1.    Place beets and sweet potatoes in one bowl and red onion and tomatoes in a separate bowl. Drizzle a bit of olive oil and salt over each bowl of vegetables and toss to coat.

2.    Spread the veggies in a flat layer on two separate parchment paper lined baking sheets.  Slide beets and sweet potatoes in the oven and roast at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes.  Place tomatoes and red onions into the oven on a separate rack and continue roasting for another 20-25 minutes.

3.    Remove veggies from oven and let sit for a few minutes to continue cooling.

4.    Place nopales pieces into a sieve or colander and rinse under warm water for a couple of minutes.  (If your nopales is extra oozy, continue to run water over the pieces until most of the juice stops running).  Set aside.

5.    Prepare dressing by placing cider vinegar, cilantro, garlic, lime juice and zest, agave nectar, serrano pepper and cumin in a food processor.  Blend until smooth.  Slowly drizzle in grapeseed oil until incorporated.  Salt to taste.

6.    Finish salad by tossing warm roasted veggies with nopales.  Top with avocado and cotija cheese.  Drizzle cilantro dressing over the salad.

*Taste a tiny piece of the serrano pepper before adding it to the dressing.  You can add more or less based on your penchant for heat.

Click HERE for a printable recipe.


50 thoughts on “The Perfect Pair

  1. That looks totally yummy! Nopales are a staple in Mexico and they go with pretty much anything. You can chop them up and scramble some eggs into them, or fry them with some potatoes, or shredded pork, with chile ancho, plain onions and tomatoes, anything! Most people boil them first (with salt or baking soda in a copper pot to get rid of the sap), but I just add them raw and let them cook in the pan. You can grill them too, or make a nopal-orange smoothie to lower your blood sugar and cholesterol, the possibilites are endless!

  2. A total 10 on my YUM scale…I love napoles, and should have picked some up for our meal tonight, still a chance…thanks guys for this post…

  3. Wow! I’ve never heard of this but it sounds awesome. It’s always fun to buy things in the store that made you think, “what IS that?” And see what you can make with it!

  4. I love love LOVE nopales, but I have always been wary of cooking with them because I didn’t know exactly how to prepare them. Thanks for the tips!!

  5. Funny, last time I was at the market I almost picked up some Nopales. I’ve never cooked with them before and now am so inspired. The vinaigrette sounds awesome. Thanks!

  6. Very original dish. I have some baby cactus in my backyard. A friend told me I cook it. I never knew what to do with it. This recipe is perfect. The spicy vinaigrette is tempting but how spicy is a 1/3 of a serrano pepper? 😉

  7. This looks great! Unfortunately, I’ve only ever seen fresh nopales for sale in Southern California. As the gray skies and low temperature outside remind me, I am not in Southern California!

  8. Gorgeous salad, and I LOVE the sound of this viniagrette. I dont know that Ive seen cactus leaves round here. Ill have to look:)

  9. What a gorgeous salad–I am excited to add it to the Souper Sunday line-up. I have been nervous to cook with nopales but this might just inpire me to try the next time I see them. I share your cotija love too!

  10. but I don’t eat beets and I have never heard of grapeseed oil! Tell me the truth–do you really keep all this stuff around?! Did you take this picture? Tell me!!!

  11. Wow. That salad looks delicious… and I’m sure the flavor combination is very interesting. I might be a little intimidated by the nopales! Great job making an approachable, appetizing dish with them!

  12. Thank you for this! Two very similar looking paddles showed up in my house about a month ago, just in time for Cinco de Mayo, and I was too busy to get around to giving them the attention they deserved. Now I know what to do with them!

  13. I’ve always seem cactus leaves in the markets. I’ve never really tasted them before. I this has given me the push to do so. That salad look really refreshing!

  14. I always see the big pear cactus leaves in my grocery store… wonder at them and pass by.

    Not the next time! 🙂

    Not sure if they have the cotija cheese –


  15. I’ve never had nopales before. Sounds like you had fun experimenting with them.

    They look sort of like popcorn mittens. That’s what I thought they were when I first saw the photo :-D. I just though they were thumb-side down.

  16. Oh my, this looks great!!! I also love finding random inspiration in markets and I concur on the cheese and salad pairing: it should be a law for every salad to ahve cheese. It is around my house 😉
    Lovely salad, uncommon but appealing ingredients

  17. Nopalitos and cotija, nice combination! I haven’t been able to find cotija here in Columbus to make my mom’s grilled cotija and nopalitos. That sounds delicious right now :-p

  18. wow! thanks for opening my eyes to the nopal. i’ve seen them in stores but always wondered what i would do with a “cactus leaf”. 🙂

  19. Bravo, Duo! You’re creation looks magnificent. Great combination of veggies and flavors. I’ve never cooked with nopales myself, but have had them in a salsa when I was in Arizona … delicious!

  20. That sounds wicked good. I’ve never seen nopales around here, which sucks because now I want to try some!

  21. Where did you get those!?! I was looking like crazy for cactus leaves for a Latin Barbeque but couldn’t find it anywhere! That looks amazing!

  22. definitely a new ingredient for me as well!! What I like the most is how much fun it sounds like you guys have when you cook with something new. And of course the picture looks great!!

  23. Another new ingredient for me (the nopales, that is). Not that I’m likely to find nopales in Ireland (we don’t exactly have a desert climate around here 🙂 ), but still interesting to know what I might do with them if they ever did come my way.

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