Cactus paillard with grilled nopales
Cactus paillard with grilled nopales Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Tony Diaz (Maude’s Liquor Bar)
The Challenger: John Asbaty (Panozzo’s Italian Market)
The Ingredient: Cactus

Prickly pear cactus grows so quickly and is so difficult to get rid of that it’s often considered a pest plant. At the beginning of the 20th century, Australia suffered an infestation that claimed nearly 60 million acres of land despite concerted efforts to eradicate the cactus; advancing at a rate of about 2.5 million acres a year, it took over farms and forced farmers to abandon their land (the outbreak was eventually brought under control by a species of moth from Argentina called—seriously—Cactoblastis cactorum).

The cactus has its uses, though. The sap can be made into chewing gum; fibers from the dried pads can be used to make baskets and fans. And both the pads (nopales) and the “fruit” (actually the flower, known as tuna) of the plant are not only edible but popular in the American southwest as well as in Mexico and many other countries.

Tony Diaz chose to use the pads, which are common in Mexico in salads and soups and with scrambled eggs. He’d eaten them but never worked with them before, he said, and found the hardest part dealing with the texture of the nopales once they’re cut open. “It just gets really slimy,” he said. “And then the more you chew it, the slimier it becomes in your mouth, so it’s just like your mouth keeps filling up with slime.”

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Diaz first tried a Mexican-Asian noodle dish with shrimp, substituting thinly sliced cactus for the noodles. The problem was that as he worked with the cactus, it became mucilaginous. “The more you touch it—it was just like slime. Like sea cucumber,” he said. “Not what I’m going for.” He pointed out, though, that the sliminess isn’t an issue for most Mexicans; it’s people in the U.S. who are put off by certain textures.

Boiling cactus with baking soda eliminates some of the sliminess, Diaz said, but he decided to grill the nopales instead—which also helps with the texture and adds a little flavor. He made a cactus paillard: grilled nopales accompanied by tomato, pineapple, onion, avocado, and “Mexican tartar sauce” of aioli, pickled jalapeños, marjoram, and oregano. “It seemed like the more ingredients I would put with it, the more you lose the cactus. The green flavor of the cactus is really subtle, like a really mild asparagus or a green bean,” Diaz said. He also described it as having “a really intense tang, like sorrel does.”

The young cactus pads Diaz used had very small spines, which had to be trimmed off before he coated the nopales in oil and grilled them. “I thought I’d be a man and not wear gloves,” he said—but he still had a spine stuck in his finger from the last time he’d worked with nopales a week earlier, so he wore gloves to trim them.

After grilling the nopales Diaz let them cool and then breaded and panfried them, dipping one side of each in masa harina, then an egg white-Dijon mixture, then panko mixed with Parmesan before adding it to the pan. He’d vacuum-sealed pineapple slices with mezcal (a smoky agave-based Mexican liquor), and served that along with the cactus, tomato, avocado, red onion, tartar sauce, and cilantro.

“With the light, raw ingredients, you definitely get a lot of the cactus coming through,” he said. “To help the slime out a little bit, I also wanted to put in other mouthwatering elements. The acidity from the pineapple and the tomatoes—the juiciness of those elements helps balance out the texture of the cactus slime.”

Diaz said he won’t work with nopales again while at Maude’s, but might try it at home. “I’ve gotten to a point where I like it; I want to eat more.”

Who’s next:

Aaron Arnett of Davanti Enoteca, working with Peppercorns. Diaz said he didn’t specify any particular kind because he wanted to leave it open-ended. “I think it’s hard to find a way to use that ingredient artfully, because it can be very intense,” he said.

Cactus Paillard

1 large cactus pad
½ cup masa harina or all-purpose flour
½ cup Dijon egg wash*
1 cup panko mix*
2 T clarified butter

*Dijon egg wash
50 g dijon mustard
50 g egg whites, whisked

*Panko mix
100 g panko
20 g parmesan, grated

With a knife, cut all the spines off the cactus pad and trim the outer rim off. Rinse clean and dry immediately. Rub with grapeseed oil and season with fine sea salt. Place on a medium-high heat grill to achieve nice grill marks and so that the cactus turns an olive-green color, about five minutes. Flip and cook the other side in the same manner, another 5 minutes. Remove from grill and allow to cool to room temperature. Dredge the cactus in masa harina, brush with egg wash and dredge in panko mixture. In a nonstick pan over medium heat, add clarified butter and then the cactus paddle, panko side down. Swirl pan occasionally to ensure even browning. When the bread crumbs have fried to a deep golden color, remove the cactus from the pan.

Tomato hearts
Sliced avocado
Sliced red onion
Cilantro leaves
Mexican tartar sauce*
Pineapple compressed with mezcal*
Maldon sea salt

*Mexican tartar sauce
100 g aioli
20 g pickled jalapenos, chopped
4 g pickling liquid
1 g fresh marjoram, chopped
1 g fresh oregano, chopped

*Pineapple compressed with mezcal
100 g pineapple
10 g mezcal
Vacuum-seal all ingredients and let sit for several minutes.

To plate:
Smear tartar sauce on the plate. Add cactus and scatter the remaining garnishes around the plate. Season each tomato heart and avocado slice with sea salt.