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Ethnic food tastes worth acquiring: Nopales

Photo by Ron Dollette/Flickr (Creative Commons)

I'll admit that there's nothing terribly unconventional about nopales, the fourth item in this week's series of unsung ethnic delicacies. Nopales, or nopalitos, are made from the cooked paddles of the prickly pear cactus and are standard fare in Mexico, and thus in Southern California.

But the items we're talking about here are not necessarily unusual, just unsung. I hadn't thought of including nopales, but a note from a reader this week reminded me of why they're not particularly popular with those who didn't grow up with them: "babas," or in English, slime.

Which is a crying shame, because when prepared well, the slime is gone and the nopales are delicious, with a tangy taste and a texture not unlike green beans. Yadhira De Leon wrote on KPCC's Facebook page that they are are "good for you and filling."

She added, "You just have to rinse them real good to get the slime off."

Nopales are good for you. They are low in carbohydrates and are believed to be stabilize blood sugar and lower cholesterol, among other things.

Cooked nopales with eggs are a popular breakfast dish in Mexican cuisine. They're also served grilled and in several other ways, but perhaps the best introduction for non-nopal eaters is ensalada de nopales, a nopales salad. The cooked cactus does a good job of absorbing other flavors, like dressings, which makes it ideal for salads.

Making your own nopales is tricky. But if you dare attempt it at home, one good recipe recommends boiling them twice for optimum slime removal.

Nopal novices can buy them canned or bottled, but nah. The best thing is to find a restaurant that has a good ensalada de nopales and go from there. I'm a fan of the one at La Huasteca in Lynwood, but there are nopales on menus all over town worth trying. Just try them.

Yesterday's unsung delicacy was tejuino, the Mexican fermented corn drink that tastes much better than it sounds. Tuesday's post featured the foul-smelling but good-tasting durian fruit from Southeast Asia, and Monday's post featured perhaps the ugliest squid dish you'll ever see, the delicious arroz con calamares en su tinta, or rice with squid in its own ink.

Have a dish to suggest? Post a note about it below. Photos are welcome, too.