Tacos with Cactus, Poblano, Charred Onion Rajas

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Tomatillo salsa was just for starters for our last taco night. I made carnitas- style pork tacos with cumin slaw and these vegetarian cactus tacos with avocado cream and cotija cheese. Poblano rajas was the base for the taco filling- strips of seasoned poblanos cooked with charred sliced onions and  spices. Poblano rajas are great as a side with meat, burgers, scrambled eggs, mixed with cream or cheese. Adding the nopal cactus strips made them a substantial and succulent taco with the creamy avocado and salty cheese.

Nopal (prickly pear cactus paddles) are similar to both aloe leaves and okra. They hold moisture in their fleshy paddles with the soluble fiber called mucilage. Cooked, they are a bit like a green bean and a bit like pickled okra, the tender crunch of the green bean and the silky tangy texture of pickled okra. They add a bit of body to soups, a bright crunch to huevos rancheros, and pickled, would probably be great in a Bloody Mary!

I’ve seen cactus in several forms in markets: canned in jars, de-clawed and diced in plastic bags, or whole with the larger spines removed but still a bit prickly. I usually try to buy them whole. Most vegetables start to deteriorate once they are cut at all and it can be hard to see their condition when they are wrapped in plastic. If you are shopping in a place with a lot of turnover in the produce department and a clientele that will buy enough pre-cut cactus to make you confident in its freshness, buy them. It will save you a step or two (and possibly a prick in the fingertip). But don’t be intimidated by the whole paddles. It’s a pretty simple matter to de-claw them at home; either stick a fork into the fleshier end and scrape them with a sharp paring knife or singe them over a gas flame until the spines are burned off. Once the spines are blackened, a quick rinse will wash away anything that is left.

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Nopal Poblano Rajas

3 large poblanos

4 nopal paddles

1 red serrano for color

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic

pinch Mexican oregano

pinch ground cumin (if desired)

olive oil

salt to taste

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Start by preparing the nopal. Using tongs, hold the paddle by the thicker end over a gas flame until any spines are singed. Rinse briefly to remove any charred bits of spine. Slice them on the bias into 1/4 inch strips.

Remove the stem ends and seeds from the chiles. Slice them lengthwise into thin strips. Remove the stem and root end from the onion and cut into thin strips.

Smash the garlic and mince into a paste.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the slices of onion to the dry skillet and cook, stirring often until the onions begin to char just a bit. Scrape the onions out onto a plate and set aside. Lower the heat under the skillet to medium low and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the chile strips, salt, garlic, and spices and cook for about 10 minutes or until the chiles are beginning to soften. Add the onions and the cactus strips, stirring to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally and watching that the vegetables don’t stick to the pan until the onions and peppers have collapsed into a silky sticky savory tangle and the cactus has lost its vibrant green color and becomes a soft olive green. Taste for texture- the cactus should still have a bit of a pop between the teeth but be very tender- and salt to taste.

Serve in a taco with corn tortillas, avocado and cotija. Or use as a filling for omelette, on top of a burger, with a smoky roast chicken.

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Inspiration: What’s in your shopping basket?

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I was unloading my shopping bags onto the counter and loved the pile with all the shades of greens, reds, and orange. I had just grabbed a lot of produce that looked good at Essex Street Market in the LES putting together a loose meal plan in my mind as I went along. I got okra, Persian cucumbers, poblanos, cilantro, radishes, limes, nopal cactus paddles, red chiles, and sour oranges. It looked like a summer still life, and it makes being (mostly) vegetarian exciting when one has beautiful fruits and vegetables to cook with.

So far, we’ve had cilantro, citrus, and chiles in ceviche, crisp radish and cucumber snacks, and I’m working on nopal and poblano tacos. I’ll probably roast the okra with chipotle and do some vegetable chiles rellenos.

It got my thinking: how do most people shop and where do you get your inspiration? Do you plan ahead and then shop or look for what’s good and plan your meals from there? Do you research before you buy a new strange vegetable or do you buy and then look for what to do with it?

Happy Cinco de Mayo, y’all!- Huevos Rancheros

When it comes to celebrating Cinco de Mayo, there are a few directions you can take. First, you could ignore it, because it’s just a Wednesday and you don’t even know what it’s about. Second, you could consume far too many margaritas at your local cantina, after which you still have to get up and go to work on Thursday. Third, and I’ll allow that this is an unconventional idea, you could really mess up a French recipe in honor of the French’s defeat by the Mexican army in 1862. Or fourth, and this is the method I recommend, you can make some great Americanized Mexican food, because doesn’t that really capture the spirit of the holiday?

Huevos Rancheros

Serves 2

4 corn tortillas, as fresh as you can find them. I get some that still have steam in the bag from a tortilla factory near me.

4 eggs

1 cup chunky fresh salsa- I like Salsa Especial from Trader Joe’s if you don’t make homemade

2/3 cup cooked pinto or pink beans or refried beans –   Rancho Gordo beans are my favorite

Monterey Jack cheese

Oil of butter to cook the eggs

Cilantro, stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped

Scallion, sliced

Avocado, about 1/2 sliced for 2 people

Nopal, briefly cooked in boiling water, drained and salted

Warm your oven at it’s lowest setting to keep the plates and tortillas warm while everything else is prepared.

Wrap the tortillas in foil or put them in a cast iron skillet and cover with foil in the oven to warm.

Warm the beans.

Have the cilantro, scallions, avocado, nopal, and cheese ready.

Heat a drop of oil or butter in a small nonstick skillet, and crack 2 of the eggs into it. After the whites have begun to turn opaque, pour a little of  the salsa and a teaspoon or so of water into the pan and cover. Cook until the whites are firm, and the yolks are still a little runny. If you have two skillets and the skills of a short order cook, try cooking all the eggs at the same time; otherwise repeat with the other eggs.

To assemble, place two tortillas on a dinner plate. Spread half of the beans onto the tortillas and top with the eggs. Pour half of the salsa over the eggs, grate a little cheese over the top and sprinkle with the cilantro, scallions, avocado, and nopal.