Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Nopales redux in Plague-time

Michael Sedano
Dateline: CasaSedano In Isolation
Who isn't? In isolation, that is. Essential tipas tipos, that's who. The rest of us stay home and cook. Those who shop, shop and buy what's left after the hoarders emptied the shelves. For some, there's foraging. Nopales, for example, are coming into season. 

Sadly, the wilderness trails around me are closed to hikers. That means foragers can't pick the young pencas from native nopales, and that's an important element of nopal cooking. Making a small lumbre in el monte and roasting some pencas and tunas on the coals, maybe some weenies, should be part of everyone's growing up.

Ni modo. Neighborhood landscapers have discovered the beauteous opuntia in xeriscape plantings. Few of your anglo neighbors will be hep to eating that cactus, by golly, but they've heard of it. Here are some ideas to get them eating like a Mexican.

Today's La Bloga-Tuesday recycles three columns The Gluten-free Chicano has contributed to La Bloga-Tuesday in the past. A born nopal-eater and having one en la frente, el G-F Chicas Patas welcomes your recipes for nopalitos.

The Gluten-free Chicano 2014
Peeling Nopales the No-Espina Way

Sadly, the title misleads a bit. Any time a cook prepares fresh nopalito pencas, an espina or two is sure to find a finger or palm. Así es, the romance of el nopal.

A sharp paring knife and careful finger placement between the espina carbuncles are two secrets to preparing nopales.

Use a washable cutting board or work on newspaper. Draw the knife around the spiny perimeter of the cactus paddle, cutting away the outer ¼ inch of spininess.

Hold the penca flat and draw the knife across the face of the penca nearly horizonally. Most espina nubs cut right off. Dip the blade in a glass of water to wash away espinitas.

Steel the blade frequently to keep the edge slicing effortlessly.

Wash the pencas. There's a white espina in the top middle of the foto below.

Slice the pencas into ¼" strips. Draw the blade at a diagonal through the strips.

The nopalitos are ready to use in a salad, a stew, with scrambled eggs. Below, nopales simmer with carne de puerco. Later, the cook will add una torta de camarón.

See below for The Gluten-free Chicano recipes for nopales con tortas de camarón and a really fancy yet economical pumpkin hominy and nopales guisado.

The Gluten-free Chicano
Nopales con carne de puerco y tortas de camarón
Michael Sedano


Grown from single penca planted in 1960. ©2013msedano
You know it’s Springtime when opuntia cactus of the right varieties form plentiful buds and you keep an eye on them over the next few weeks until the pencas are large and still tender, deep green and ready to be picked, peeled, diced and cooked up.

But early February is not Springtime. The nopales stand bereft of buds. Still weeks to go before we can return to the old nopal and harvest some of its tender offerings. When he bought this land in 1960, my father kicked his heel into the hillside here, to soften the dirt. He dropped a penca where he worked and stepped on it, pressing it into the earth.

When there was still open land and groves in Redlands, people who didn’t grow their own knew the best places to pick nopales. Just as gente knew the groves where the best verdolagas grew, a favored field where the kelites were almost weed-free, they knew where the best tunas--hence the best nopales--grew. Nopales were a feature of the local landscape; in the wash, in alleyways, in a corner of an empty lot.

Unusually thin penca.

Some nopales are more delectable than others. The ones with fuzzy micro-espinas are inedible just because they're so much hassle, no one I know has ever eaten one.

Pencas need to be new growth, healthily green-colored, free of complicated espinas, and a scant half inch thick, so diced chunks have skin on two sides.

Always ask permission before cutting someone's nopales. Most gente will exchange recipes and urge you take a few more. I've heard some tipas request a few dollars to allow a forager to pick nopales.

Today, the local Mexican markets sell diced nopalitos in plastic bags, as well as whole pencas if you want them for grilling, or to cut your own.

The nopal forms the heart of comida de cuaresma. With scrambled eggs for breakfast, in a pickled salad for lunch, and Nopales con tortas de camarón for dinner, those observant of the Lenten stricture against eating meat find hearty eating in nopales.

I, like my people, always preferred the dish with pork, hence today’s The Gluten-free Chicano recipe features pork as well as shrimp and eggs with nopales. The dish is completely gluten-free.

Nopales con carne de puerco y tortas de camarón is down-home cooking, but also company food.

Medium onion
4 teeth garlic
three or four branches of cilantro
Two pencas or 1 pound diced fresh nopales.
1/8 lb chicharrón broken into 2" squares.
1 lb pork, 1/2 cubes".
Serrano or jalapeño chiles, sliced thin.
salt, red chile, comino powder, black pepper.
Eggs – 2 people per egg
2 oz ground dried shrimp powder (I large package)
Baking soda
limón or lemon
Tomato sauce
Water or broth, maybe milk

Nopales exude a viscous gum during cutting and cooking. This is a natural thickener to the sauce but can be unnerving to the first-time user.

In a smoking hot pan...
Mince onion and garlic and wilt with the sliced chiles in good olive oil.
Add cubed pork, brown.

Add sprigs of fresh cilantro.
Toss in the nopalitos and fry until they turn a deep green.

Lower the heat.
Add one or two cans of tomato sauce and the water from rinsing the cans.

Stir in pieces of chicharrón and let simmer twenty minutes or however long it takes to make a batch of tortas de camarón.

Tortas de Camarón
This torta is an omelette thickened with powdered shrimp.

Separate eggs. Add a pinch baking soda to egg whites.
Beat egg whites to light peaks.
Blend in egg yolks.
Stir in 1/4 cup of water or milk, salt, black pepper.
Stir in half the package of powdered shrimp.
Assess your needs. Add water and the rest of the shrimp if you'll need to make more tortas. The mix should be thick enough to form dollops, not pour.

Squeeze a lime or lemon half into the egg-shrimp mix.

In a hot pan...

Drop generous tablespoons of egg mixture into hot olive oil and spread the pancake with a spatula. Turn and cook until center is done. The tortas will brown very nicely.

Float the tortas atop the nopales and serve to table.

Place a torta or two on each plate, cover with a scoop of nopales and carne de puerco. Eat with your hands and tortilla de maíz.

Refritos, green salad, cold gluten-free beer, hot conversation at your option.

The Gluten-free Chicano cooks
Chile Verde Con Granitos Y Calabaza
Michael Sedano

pork meat, peeled hatch chile, cubed pumpkin 
Company was coming and the Gluten-free Chicano was busy as an agent provocateur at a peace rally. The Gluten-free Chicano wanted something easy but not ordinary. He had the perfect ingredients on the calendar—the day before, Frito Lascano held his annual La Pelada and the Gluten-free Chicano had 30 pounds of roasted Hatch chile in the refrigerator.

The fastest use of freshly-roasted chiles is soup. Remove stems and seeds, chop lightly then whiz in a blender. Add water or broth to keep the blades moving. Make a cup of chile paste. In a saucepan, heat the chile, stirring in broth, milk, half-and-half, or yoghurt, or cream, to produce the thickness you want. Serve in a fancy bowl with a chile ring garnish. Prep time: 10 minutes.

Serving soup is for a less engaged day. I decided to make a variation of Frito’s "pumpkin soup". 

This distinctive stew gets chewiness from granitos plus texture from lots of meat. The bit of sweetly aromatic squash adds interest to the mélange of richly spiced vegetables. The chiles determine the chilosoness, so be prepared with habanero or other hot sauce if your chiles are not.

The preparation illustrated here at La Bloga and at Read! Raza came out famously. Gente took home plates, and I wanted to freeze some to make tamales.

Most Mexican food is normally gluten-free and this pork stew is normal. A non-meat alternative adds cubed papas in place of pork, and reduces cooking time to around half an hour.

Ingredients to serve 20 or freeze for later
3 lb boneless pork
1 bag diced nopales or 2 pencas
2-3 lb roasted green chiles
2 cups white hominy with liquid
2 cups diced orange winter squash; butternut, pumpkin
Fresh cilantro
4 green onions
Onion, garlic, comino, salt

Sharp knives.
Cut everything to the same proportions.
Cube meat and squash to ½” or 1” cubes.
Dice/chop onion and nopales to size of grains of hominy.
Chop the chiles after removing stems and seeds.
Thinly slice 3-6 dientes of garlic.
Slice green onion into 2" pieces, chop greens.

Deep, wide sartén, or large saucepan. Medium flame.
Lightly brown the aromatics and squash.
Add pork and brown.
Add chile and its juice, mix together.
Add granitos and some juice, mix together.
Add green onion
Chop a big pinch of cilantro stems and leaves, sprinkle on top.

Reduce heat to lowest simmer.
Cover and cook two hours, stirring regularly.
If you added too much liquid, slightly uncover lid and it boils off.

When this chile verde is done, the pork is fork-tender, the base viscous and saturated with flavorful liquid.

Serve over steamed rice (for excess carbs) or just ladle some into bowls and the guests can come and go, walk around the room and talk of Michangelo.

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