Prickly Pear Cactus Enchiladas – Definitely Not Your Mama’s Nopalitos!

Inspiration comes in many forms. I saw a recipe for portobello and poblano chile enchilada that sounded interesting. I decided not to make the dish, rather, I thought I’d reinvent it using my favorite prickly pear cactus as a filling. I also swiped a favorite chipotle cream sauce idea from a local restaurant, but used half and half instead. I made just six stuffed and rolled enchiladas as a side dish with  pint beans.  The entré was a very thin ribeye steak pan grilled the way it is done by yet another Mexican restaurant.  It looks big, but is about 1/4 thick and weighs in at a light four ounce serving. An imported Indio beer was the beverage of choice!

Mexican inspired dinner. A thin steak, pinto beans, a cold beer and, from the Gringo Academy Test Kitchen, Gringo Gourmet Prickly Pear Cactus Enchiladas with Chipotle Cream.

The enchilada stuffing took a little prep, but with a small electric food chopper, it went pretty quickly. The stuffing and sauce came together while the cactus cooked. If you have ever cooked cactus (nopales in Spanish or nopalitos when diced) you know that it yeals a sticky liquid similar to okra’s liquid. Traditionally, it is boiled and rinsed three times to remove the sticky. I sauté it in a couple of tablespoons of olive or canola oil. The hot oil causes the liquid to be released and it evaporates. I speed the process up by adding a tablespoon of water to the pan.  The water makes steam which hastens the evaporation process.  The cactus flesh darkens as it cooks and soon you have a pan of dark green cooked cactus with virtually 99% of the sticky gone.

Enchilada filling is chopped while the cactus cooks. You want some texture in the vegetables, so don’t over chop it.
Diced cactus begins to darken and lose its sticky texture.
Vegetable filling is added to the pan of cactus, stirred in and cooked until softened.
Cactus Enchiladas ready for the oven.

I was very happy with how the enchilada experiment turned out. I’ll make them for company soon.  The recipe below is for four servings of three rolled enchilada each.  You could stack the tortillas with filling in layers, but rolled seemed the thing to do for his meal. The original inspiration recipe called for pickled onion garnish. I decided to use Fresno pepper slices as a garnish instead because I forgot to pick up a red onion.  Pickle white or yellow onion would have been too pale for the dish, and I happened too have a few Fresnos on hand. Fresno are a mild pepper and their bright red color perks up a plate.  I hope you try this recipe and enjoy it as much as we did.



1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

5 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from about 2 limes), divided

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

16 oz cleaned nopales (prickly pear cactus) chopped into ½ inch dice

2 Tbsp olive or canola oil

1-1/2 C chopped grape tomatoes

4 or five roasted, peeled and chopped long green chile peppers

½ medium white or yellow onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 pint half and half, divided

1 canned chipotle chile and two or three tsp of adobo sauce from the can.

Juice of one Persian lime

Kosher salt to taste

8-10 oz. manchego or asadero cheese, grated

12 corn tortillas

2 Tbsp cup cilantro, coarsely chopped, divided

Fresno chiles, sliced (optional garnish if you forgot a red onion as I did)


Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine vinegar, sugar, and 4 Tbsp. lime juice in a small bowl. Stir in the onion, microwave 30 sec. You want the onion to absorb the flavor, not get too soft.

In a large pan, sauté diced cactus in oil until the sticky secretion is evaporated and cactus is a dark olive color. The process can be hastened by adding one Tbsp water at a time to help steam off the sticky secretion.

While cactus cooks, chop tomato, chiles, onion and garlic in a food chopper or food processor and mix together in a bowl. When cactus is cooked, stir in vegetable mixture and cook until vegetables are softened. Season lightly with kosher salt. Set aside.

Purée chipotle chile and 1/2 cup half and half in a blender until smooth. Stir into remaining half and half and add lime juice. Heat in a wide pot, but do not boil. Season lightly with Kosher salt if desired.

Wrap tortillas in a clean dish cloth. Microwave for 45 seconds. Keep stack wrapped.

Cover the bottom of a casserole with a few spoonsful of chipotle and half and half sauce. Dip tortillas in sauce, one at a time. Lay dipped tortilla in the casserole and fill with a generous tablespoon of cactus filling and a sprinkle of grated cheese. Roll tortilla and place seam down in casserole. Repeat until tortillas are all filled or casserole is full. Top with a little extra sauce and generous sprinkle of cheese.

Bake enchiladas until cheese is melted and edges of tortillas are toasted, 25–30 minutes. Top with reserved pickled onion and sprinkle of chopped cilantro. Add a few pickled onion for a bright contrast of color and flavor. I wouldn’t use the Fresno chile slices and the onion together.

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