This recipe was submitted by Timothy Alden.
¡Hola amigos! Did you know that every time you went for a walk in the Maltese countryside, you were actually surrounded by something delicious, hidden in plain sight? In August and September you would be right to guess that I am also talking about the fruit of the bajtar tax-xewk. However, all year round, one can cut, prepare and eat the young cactus leaves too!
Like many other edible delights such as tomatoes and potatoes, our very own bajtar tax-xewk in Malta were originally to be found in the Americas. Today, I am going to share a popular recipe I picked up myself – all the way from Zinacantepec, Mexico! ¡Que locura!
1. Making the Cut
To start with, find a healthy cactus in the countryside, preferably away from a busy road. Look out for any young leaves, which should be a much lighter green than the rest of the plant. Not all cacti will have fresh young leaves. Cut as many as you need; five should be good for one meal, and bring them home – carefully.
Be warned that although the leaves have little thorn clusters which you can see easily, there are smaller thorns all across the leaf which are nearly invisible. ¡No touchy, pendejo!
2. The Clean-Up
Grab a very sharp knife, a fork, a chopping board and two bowls. Fill one bowl with water and drop the cactus leaves in it. Use the fork to hold a cactus leaf down on the board and the knife to scrape off all the thorns on both sides. (Also cut off a thin slice off the round edges of the cactus leaf to make your life easier.)
Empty the thorns and shavings into the remaining empty bowl. Drop the clean leaf into the water and exchange for another leaf!
3. The Chill-Out
Once all the leaves are clean, put them in a plastic bag and leave them in the fridge overnight as part of the preparation.
In the meantime, be sure you have tomatoes, onions, fresh coriander leaves and soft ġbejna cheese for the salad to come.
4. The Chop and Boil
Once the leaves have been left in the fridge overnight, chop them into fine chunks. Then drop them in a pot with just a couple of inches of water.
Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt over them.
Cover the pot.
Then boil them on a very light flame until the chunks change colour into an even lighter green. (If you cook them on a higher flame, the mucus/goo of the cactus may ruin everything)
Once the chunks have changed colour, take the top of the pot off and let them simmer gently for about ten minutes.
Then drain them and leave them to drip for a few minutes. I did not rinse them afterwards, as I want to keep the juice and the taste. I just dumped the water.
5. Tossing the Salad
Finely chop a couple of tomatoes, onions and some fresh coriander. Since we do not have Mexican cheese, use soft ġbejna instead. Then mix everything together with the cactus leaves and congratulations, your salad is complete!
¡Está a toda madre!
6. With a Maltese Touch
The best way to enjoy this nopal salad in Malta is, in my opinion, spread over some toasted Maltese bread with tomato kunserva, and eaten while it is still warm. Try it with any fish from a can, just like nanna made it, to reach its full fusion potential!
Experiment, indulge and unlock a whole new world of culinary delight! Just don’t tell too many people or this wonderful resource will soon go the way of the Dodo in Malta!