The sun bakes the arid southern Californian desert. The yellow-brown earth is dotted with outlandish vegetation—everything from the wild-armed Joshua Tree to the towering saguaro. Here it takes a level of resiliency, and a level of resourcefulness, to survive. Existing in the expansive Sonoran and Mojave deserts requires creativity, too—seeing potential usefulness in resources that others might dismiss.
One of the greatest sources of nutrition and water—both rarely found in the desert—is cacti. While some might recoil from the spines and the seeming hostility of the plant, others, including the indigenous people of the southwestern United States and Mexico, have recognized its usefulness. The opuntia—or in English, prickly pear cactus—fruit has historically offered a tasty addition to meals, and the paddles of the plant itself, known as nopales, are a versatile aspect of Southwestern cuisine.
Two chefs in Southern California are embracing the cactus as a sustainable and delicious addition to their restaurant’s menus. Chef Katy Smith of Puesto—which has three locations in San Diego, La Jolla and Irvine—and Chef Michael Beckman of Truss and Twine, newly opened March 13, remind us that our spiny desert-dwelling friends are not to be avoided.
Puesto is known for its approachable and fresh Mexico City-style street tacos, house-made tortillas and salsa made from scratch. The menu ranges from tacos to taquitos to margaritas. Truss and Twine, a new addition to Palm Springs, focuses in on cocktails and local ingredients. Many ingredients are sourced from within 100 miles of the restaurant’s door.
For Beckman, the nopales can be prepared with both savory and sweet flavors.
“I like to add acid, fat and heat for the savory,” says Beckman. “I like Fresno chilis or Serranos for the heat. My menu at Truss & Twine is featuring them in a confit to pair with local goat cheese. I add whole cinnamon, star anise, clove, lemon and grapefruit peels and sugar in the raw and cook them down for about an hour and half.”
Beckman describes how he has always loved cooking with cactus, but was particularly inspired by how the indigenous Cahuilla people survived in the arid landscape of the Coachella Valley. He looks to the area’s Native American roots to see how they prepare other endemic foods such as rabbit and mequite pods.
He isn’t afraid to try new species of cactus beyond the commonly used opuntia.
“I’ve tried several others I picked up during a hike here in the desert, or from my front yard, anything that has that paddle shape and produces fruit,” Beckman says.
Smith explores using cactus in a variety of ways including a traditional Mexican salad of nopal and onion, and savory zucchini and nopal tacos. To explore even more unusual uses, Smith has created a pickled nopal salad, a nopal-lime gelato and a blended nopal cocktail.
There are plenty of eaters who are a little hesitant to try nopal, but Smith has made an effort to share the ingredient with the diners at her restaurant.
“With our nopales salad, we literally just send it out to guests who have never had it before,” says Smith. “It is crisp and refreshing and delicious on its own or as a topping for tacos. We have a deep fried carnitas plate served with all the fixings for making the perfect carnitas taco. One of our sides is our fresh nopales salad. I think it’s a great way to introduce nopales to our guests. They don’t have to eat it all, just take one bite of your taco with nopal on it and see if it is right for you.”
Both chefs describe having to overcome the texture of nopal. Many times when cooked, the plant is slimy—a texture similar to okra. But once this is eliminated by either blanching or cooking twice, the nopal has a pleasant texture that can be used to complement a number of dishes, as Beckman and Smith describe.
Cactus deserves the attention it is finally getting in southern California. The versatile ingredient has proven to be a central aspect of several dishes. Furthermore, it is sustainable—it is plentiful in the region and requires very little water to grow. As our climate in the southwest changes, cactus may become a regular addition to meals; Beckman and Smith show that nopal can be both healthy and delicious.
The use of nopal at Puesto and Truss and Twine show the rest of the country that the southwestern deserts are simply overflowing with possibility. While it might not be the most obvious place to find flavor, all it takes is an open mind, a love for the region and a little bit of determination.