I’ve always known my mother was resourceful, but it’s surprised me how easily she’s taken to the Southern California desert micro-cuisine, which is heavily influenced by indigenous traditions from the country our state used to belong to: Mexico. While working in a school cafeteria and eventually owning a restaurant, she learned a great deal from her fellow coworkers who were Mexican-American—including how to harvest and remove the needles from nopales, the Opuntia variety cactus that’s more commonly known in English as prickly pear. She has a cactus bearing nopales in her front yard, which she harvests from for me.
When the nopales are combined with the grey zucchini she grows in her backyard, plus garlic, scallions, sesame oil and seeds, and a healthy dose of saeu-jeot (Korean salted shrimp), a conventional Korean dish takes on a zippy vegetal flair. (And do try to purchase or grow grey, not dark green, zucchini—its skin is thinner and the taste is milder, which complements the nopales.) Serve hot off the range in tacos, with sticky rice, in ssam wraps, on a spicy burger, or as a chilled side salad on a hot summer day. If you can’t find nopales at your local Mexican market, simply omit and add one more zucchini. —Dakota Kim
2 1/2 cups
zucchini, preferably grey (approximately 1 medium zucchini), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
nopales (1 to 2 cups leaves), cleaned, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
cloves garlic, minced
saeu-jeot or 2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
toasted sesame oil
white sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
scallions, whites finely chopped and greens thinly sliced, divided
gochugaru or chopped serrano or jalapeño (optional)
Heat a large skillet and add a tablespoon of vegetable or canola oil. Place zucchini and nopales in the pan. Add the garlic and your salt or saeu-jeot to the pan. Sautee on medium heat for eight to ten minutes until the zucchini begin to soften.
Add the finely chopped scallion whites to the pan and saute for one minute. If you’re just using zucchini, add two tablespoons of water and cook until soft and translucent. (The nopales will add a lot of moisture that makes adding two tablespoons of water unnecessary.)
Turn off the heat and add the sesame oil and seeds (plus the gochugaru or chiles, if using), stirring to combine. Sprinkle sliced scallion greens and additional toasted sesame seeds on top to finish.