This is a vegetarian take on one of my favorite dishes, milanesa—in which steak, veal, or chicken is pounded thin, dredged in flour, eggs, and bread crumbs, and then fried. The nopales, or cactus paddles, are perfect for breading and panfrying; their shape and size mean that there’s no pounding necessary, and their meaty texture makes a great vegetarian alternative. Salt-curing these cactus paddles seasons them, helps mostly rid them of their viscous slime called la baba, and makes them panfry easily with none of the excess liquid splatter that you’d otherwise get. This dish is also really great with crumbled queso fresco and lime wedges if you don’t feel like making the cherry tomato salsa.
- Place the nopales on a baking sheet or in a baking dish large enough that the paddles can sit comfortably flat. Salt each side of the paddle liberally. You’ll have extra salt lining the sides of your pan—gather it and cake it on the paddles. Set them aside. After 20 minutes, you’ll notice some viscous liquid beginning to emerge. At this point, flip the paddles over and rub them for 30 seconds to agitate and encourage more liquid to emerge. Rest the paddles back flat in the sheet pan. In 20 more minutes, more liquid will have released. Repeat the agitation process to make the salt dissolve, and work it into the thickest part of the paddles. In 20 more minutes, take the nopales and gently rinse them under a slow, steady stream of cold water. While rinsing, rub the paddles together to help wash away any residual salt and liquid. A little baba might still secrete from the exposed flesh—that is okay. Also, rinse and dry the sheet pan. Set the rinsed nopales back on the dry pan.
- While the nopales are salt-curing, set up an egg, flour, and panko station, and make the cherry tomato salsa. Gather 3 platters or dishes large enough for dredging the nopales. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and pour them into one of the large platters for dredging. Add the all-purpose flour to a second platter and the panko bread crumbs to the third. If the panko does not all fit, add to the plate in 2 batches. Set the platters aside and make the salsa.
- Add the sliced shallots and the serrano chile to a medium serving bowl with the lime juice and salt, and lightly toss with a spoon. Let sit for 2 minutes, then add the extra-virgin olive oil, herbs, and cherry tomatoes. Toss to combine, and set aside.
- Working one nopal at a time, first press the paddle in the flour, flipping a couple times to coat evenly on both sides. Place the floured nopales back on the sheet pan. Next, one floured nopal at a time, dredge in the egg, coating both sides evenly. Lift and remove excess egg, then transfer back to the sheet pan. Last, one nopal at a time, push both sides of the nopales into the panko crumbs. If needed, sprinkle the crumbs over the top so that they are evenly coated before frying. Once all the paddles are coated, panfry.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, carefully place 2 paddles into the hot oil. Fry for about 3 minutes per side until crispy and golden brown. Transfer to a landing pad of paper towels or a wire rack to get rid of any excess oil. Repeat this process with the last 2 paddles.
- Serve warm with the cherry tomato salsa.
Christian is a California based chef, writer, and freelance recipe developer. He spent the last five years cooking as sous chef at Zuni Café. He has a bi-monthly cooking column in the San Francisco Chronicle and has words in Edible Magazine, Food52, and Epicurious. When he's not at home he's traveling to Mexico, exploring its cuisine and his heritage.