Vegan Nopalitos (Cactus Leaves) with Tofu, Shitake, and Dill

Many people are very concerned with cleansing and "toxins". Right now Whole Foods has a gigantic post-holiday display across from the dairy aisle with all the ingredients for a radical purgative cleanse. But if people ate a balanced diet, they would not need military solutions for their bodies. Let's enter into a dialogue with our digestive systems. Let's understand that digestion is a process more akin to alchemy than to the sewer system of a building .

In Chinese Medicine it is said, "Eat Grains for Energy, Proteins for Strength, and Vegetables to Keep Things Clean"

May I repeat? "...and Vegetable to Keep Things Clean...."

One of the many great vegetables for keeping things clean is the Mexican favorite Nopales, also called Nopalitos. Nopales are the leaves of a particular kind of cactus that grows in Mexico and the American Southwest. Every Mexican friend of mine is able to expound on the health benefits of Nopales; it is used extensively in Mexican folk medicine by curanderos and abuelas (healers and grandmothers). In fact, it is the Nopales cactus plant that is in the center of the Mexican flag.

Nopales has a gentle laxative effect, being full of fiber, and "slippery". It is said to stabilize blood sugar, as well. When really fresh it is crunchy, and has a pleasant salty and sour taste. Its delicious in salad, and is fine juiced with celery, carrot and parsley. Some people add a little pineapple when juicing. I use pear.

Nopalitos can be purchased fresh at any Mexican market, either whole, or cleaned and pre-cut.
That's what I get, (from the wonderful little market on 30th st. just NE of the WAMU bank, behind the giant faux-Italian condo complex...the two owners are really friendly and will talk to you about Mexican food if you are interested. Practice your Spanish with them, they like it!) as is it a bit more labor intensive cutting the spines off the fresh ones.

Anyone can grow this plant here in San Diego. I used to have one in my back yard, my gardener just stuck a stem in the center of the lawn, and it was so fast growing within a year I had a 5 foot tall living sculpture!; Its easy to pull off the young leaves before they develop spines, and just chop them up as needed. Slow Food, Yes!

The slippery and crunchy quality of Nopales makes it like a cross between Okra and Aloe Vera. This slipperiness along with its water soluble fiber content gives it a lubricating quality in the intestines. I suspect that it must have a tissue healing quality for the mucus membranes, as it is slightly sour, salty, and astringent. This could be a key to its health benefits, some chemicals in the salty sour stuff that comes out of the leaves when cut, similar to Aloe, though not from the same family.

In Ayurveda this is a vegetable that is tridoshic; it is moistening, salty, sour, bitter, cooling, mild, light, and cleansing, so it can be used in moderation by all doshas, especially if cooked or eaten raw in a way that balances different dosha imbalances.


For example, in warm weather, it can be juiced with carrot, celery, parsley, and leafy greens with some ginger for a Kapha type. For a Pitta type increase the carrot or add some apple and make sure the leafy greens are not hot like mustard. For a Vata, increase the ratio of carrot, and add some pear, and reduce the leafy green.

In cooking Nopalitos, one can vary the recipe easily to suit dosha and the season.
Last night i cooked a South Indian "Poriyel" version with spices that suit my Vata Pitta dosha in this Kapha season (though we have had some real Vata disturbing weather lately in San Diego, as of 1/19/09).

Here is a Tridoshic (suitable for all three doshas) Nopales recipe from last winter, that is light, easy to digest, mild, nourishing, and cleansing. The inherent qualities of the vegetables makes it tridoshic--(sour, salt, moistening for Vata, bitter and cooling for Pitta, light and bitter for Kapha). For someone with a strong Kapha imbalance we might use a spicy red onion rather than sweet onion, and step up the spice a little, but that is a minor point. American Kapha types need to worry more about not eating sugar and cheese than which kind of onion they use. An out-of-balance Pitta would reduce the black pepper, and an out-of-balance Vata would reduce the tofu, make sure it is really well browned, and possible add another digestive spice like cumin. But they could also have this dish as is with some other dish that strongly benefits Vata.

Nopales with Tofu, Shitake, and Dill

Ingredients:

One large brown, white, or sweet onion, sliced or diced
One cup or so cubed extra-firm organic gmo-free tofu
One cup chopped nopales (nopalitos)
1/2 cup or more shitake mushrooms, sliced
Fresh Dill to taste, say about 1/4 cup, diced, the finer the better
Sea Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper to taste
Olive Oil to sauté brown onion. I use about one tbsp.

Directions:

Saute onion in olive oil until brown enough for your taste; for this dish I like to go until the onions are clear, but not dark-dark.
Add the Tofu Cubes and sauté till brown. (You could brown the tofu separately if you like it real dark.)
Add Nopalitos, Shitake, Salt and Pepper and stir well for a minute or two.
Cover and cook on low flame for five minutes till Nopalitos are cooked. I like to cook until they are just starting to change color and wilt a little. But if you have weak digestion, cook longer.
Turn off flame.
Now add dill, stir, cover, leave a minute or two, and serve.

Serving suggestions:
Excellent as a taco or burrito in a sprouted multi-grain or corn tortilla
Good in Pitta too.
Also great with rice.
Mild tasting; kids love it.

Additions/Subtractions

One could add garlic, bell pepper, and substitute fresh oregano for dill, that would be a more traditional Mexican taste. I don't use chiles, but I am sure someone's mother would put green chiles in this. Then you might serve it in an omelet with Mexican cheese, like Cotija or Oaxaca.

As a leftover, I reheated this with an egg soft cooked in the center and topped with some French Feta. Nopales is just really good with eggs cooked any imaginable way.

I hope you try this dish, and enjoy it, and feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions. Thank you!


All above material copyrighted January 2008 by eyton shalom, san diego, ca all rights reserved. Use with permission.



Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac
Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine
eytonshalom@cox.net 619/296-759

Comments

Anonymous said…
I thought you boil the nopalitos to reduce the "slime", but I also wonder that if you do, they leave the vitamins in the water. What do you think?
that could be, i have not tried it. i dont find them too slimy, though.

but, yes, i am sure it would cook some vitamins out, but it depends which ones. anyways, its not only about vitamins, its also fiber and other phyto-nutrients. so i would cook it the way that is most appetizing for you. better to eat them than to not eat them.