Grilled Cactus leaves (nopales), cactus fruit and garlic shrimp salad

This unusual twist to this salad of cactus leaves and shrimp by Chef Marco Zapien is the addition of prickly pear cactus fruit. Photo: Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taqueria

PICO RIVERA, Calif. April, 2013—Chef Marco Zapien worked in the sports and entertainment industry before deciding to share the cooking style and family recipes of his parents. Partnering with his father Jess, Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taqueria was opened in 1994. Marco decided to develop his culinary skills so took the time to attend and graduate from the Los Angeles Culinary Institute. He then combined his interests by becoming sous chef at Edison International Field of Anaheim. He moved on to other stadiums and arenas before rejoining his father at Zapien’s in Pico Rivera. He also works for Melissa’s World Variety Produce to create new ways of using products for the sports industry.

”I came up with the dish because I had done a shrimp salad with some nopales diced like a pico de gallo and it worked really well.  So I came up with this salad using some of the same ingredients, adding the cactus fruit for color and texture, pine nuts and queso fresco for some crunch and additional flavor,”  says Chef Marco Zapien.

Both cactus leaves and cactus fruit made into 50 Best Plants on the Planet, giving the salad an elevated nutritional profile.

Recipe and photo courtesy  Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taqueria in Pico Rivera and  Melissa’s World Variety Produce. 

Prickly pear cactus fruit

Prickly pear cactus fruit

Serves 4

1 lb large shrimp (16/20),  peeled, shelled and deveined

2 T chopped garlic

1/4 C olive oil

4 cactus leaves (nopales) 

4 prickly pear cactus fruit, peeled and diced

1/2 C pine nuts, toasted

1/4 C organic cilantro, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

Toss the shrimp with the garlic, half of the olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 1/2 hour. Heat a saute pan and cook shrimp until just firm. Remove from heat and let cool. Trim cactus leaves around the outside edge and scrape the thorns from both sides with a potato peeler. Rinse under cold water to remove any excess “gooey stuff”  (obviously a restaurant term). Rub with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill for about 2 minutes on each side, remove from heat and let cool. Cut into julienne pieces and rinse again to remove the remaining gooey stuff. Toss the shrimp, cactus, prickly pears, pine nuts, and cilantro together and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Cactus leaves (nopales)

Cactus leaves (nopales)

Blood Orange Vinaigrette

1/2 C blood brange juice

1/2 C rice wine vinegar

1 t chopped garlic

2 T honey

1 t Dijon mustard

2 C salad oil

Salt & pepper, to taste

In a blender, blend all ingredients except the salad oil. Slowly drizzle in the salad oil to emulsify. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.


8 leaves butter lettuce, 1 to 2 heads

1/2 C queso fresco, to be used in plating

Arrange the leaves on the salad plate as shown and fill with the cactus and shrimp mixture. Crumble the queso fresco over each salad and drizzle with the vinaigrette.

Read more great recipies and food reviews in Linda Mensinga’s Culinary Quest


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Linda Mensinga

Linda Mensinga was editor of Culinary Trends for 15 years, now a contributing writer. Researching restaurants and hotels, she interviews the best and brightest chefs, not necessarily the most famous, to learn their secrets and recipes. Their talent and dedication never cease to inspire her. 

Mrs. Mensinga is happily food obsessed and fortunate enough to be married to a chef. 

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