While I’m an equal opportunity eater — love meat, fish, and vegetables, and would even try insects (cricket tacos, perhaps) if given the opportunity — I enjoy making vegetables the star of a dish. You don’t always need to add bacon to make things taste good (of course, bacon is yummy and does have its time and place). However, when vegetables are cooked well, you might not even miss the meat.
So, today it’s all about vegetarian tacos…but these aren’t your everyday vegetarian tacos.
Maybe I’m biased, having lived in Chicago for over ten years, but when I want Mexican, I turn to my pal Rick for inspiration; that’s Rick Bayless of the famed trio — Topolobampo (or “Topolo” for short), Frontera Grill, and XOCO. Okay, so he doesn’t actually know that I exist (although we have crossed paths on several occasions — not stalking, I promise), but in my mind, we’re simpatico, friends, buddies. He just seems like a cool person to hang out with, to have dinner with, to crack open a beer with. His recipes never let me down.
On a lazy Sunday a few weeks back, I was flipping through the channels, and there was Rick, in his house in Chicago, cooking cactus paddle (aka nopales) tacos. And then, I too wanted nopales tacos (with Rick).
So, off to the international grocery store I went in search of cactus paddles for my tacos. And, surprise, surprise, in addition to the cactus paddles, I somehow ended up with a bag full of ingredients (how does that always happen?).
Cactus paddles are unique. They’re covered by prickly thorns (aka spines) and, if not cooked properly, slimy (much like okra).
Fortunately, cactus paddles are easy to clean, though you need to be careful that you don’t get pricked by one of its many tiny thorns (refer to photos below for guidance). Tastewise, they can be described as a cross between a green pepper and green bean, with a subtle tangy, citrusy quality.
When simmered in a guajillo sauce, now we’re talking a whole other story. The paddles remain crisp, all the ‘slime’ cooks out, and the sauce is concentrated with toasty and smoky notes. The guajillo sauce packs a lot of flavor, but is not overly spicy. If you want more heat, you could always serve your nopales tacos with a side of spicy salsa (above is my chile de arbol-chipotle salsa that I’m still tweaking).
In addition to cactus paddle tacos, made roasted poblano, potato, onion tacos with portobello mushrooms. These are equally good with the addition of the cactus paddle.
This is the end product, what the cactus paddles look like after you cook them with onions, canned fire-roasted tomatoes, and toasted guajillo chiles. Toasty and a bit smoky, and all around delicious.
But, first you need to clean your cactus paddles…
Slice around the edge of the paddles to remove the outer spines, along with the blunt end where the plant was severed (you can use tongs or gloves to keep the paddle in place). Then with the side of a chef’s knife, scrape along the surface of the paddles to remove their spines. Flip and repeat on the other side. When all the paddles are cleaned, chop them into ~ 1/2″ squares.
Mexican grocery stores often sell cactus paddles that have already been cleaned, chopped, and bagged. Keep your eyes open for them.
Roasted poblano, onion, and a mixture of Peruvian purple and Yukon gold potatoes…
Picked up some lovely portobello mushrooms at the farmers’ market…thinly sliced them, pan-roasted in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and then added to the tacos with the roasted poblano, onions, and potatoes.
Fresh corn tortillas, a must…
Even better with a cold beer. I’m partial to a hoppy IPA, like Green Flash’s West Coast IPA…
Cactus Paddle (Nopales) Tacos
adapted ever so slightly from Rick Bayless
1 pound of cactus paddles
3 guajillo chiles
3 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/2 of 15-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white onion, cut in half lengthwise, sliced 1/4-inch thick
Toasting the guajillos and garlic: Cut open the chiles lengthwise. Remove the stem, seeds, and veins. Heat a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Lay a chile, one at a time, flat in the pan, and press down with a metal spatula for about 8 to 10 seconds, until very aromatic, flip, and repeat on the other side. Repeat with the remaining chiles. Set aside.
In the same pan, roast the unpeeled garlic, turning the garlic from time to time, until soft and blackened in spots, about 10 to 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins from the garlic. Tear the chiles into small pieces and add to a blender jar, along with the garlic and tomatoes. Blend until very smooth.
Clean the cactus paddles: Slice around the edge of the paddles to remove the outer spines, along with the blunt end where the plant was severed (you can use tongs or gloves to keep the paddle in place). Then with the side of a chef’s knife, scrape along the surface of the paddles to remove their spines. Flip and repeat on the other side. When all the paddles are cleaned, chop them into ~1/2″ squares.
Preparing the dish: Heat the oil, in a large skillet or (4-quart) saucepan. Add the onion and cook, stirring regularly, until nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Add the cactus paddles, cover, and cook 5 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently until all the cactus paddles’ “sticky stuff” cooks out and you hear the cactus sizzling in the oil.
Set a mesh strainer over the pot and pour the chile mixture and press through. Stir and continue cooking until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of tomato paste. Stir in 1/2 cup water, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and season with salt (about 1 teaspoon). Add a little sugar if necessary to balance out the chiles natural astringency.
Serve with fresh corn tortillas, avocado slices, cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds, and/or queso fresco (or crumbly fresh goat’s cheese).
Roasted Poblano, Onion, and Purple Peruvian and Yukon Gold Potatoes
4 small potatoes, such as Yukon or Purple Peruvian
3 polano peppers
1 medium onion, cut in half lengthwise, sliced 1/4-inch thick
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Serrano or jalapeno, minced (optional)
Roast the poblanos directly over the flame of a gas range, turning every few minutes until nicely charred on all sides. Place the poblanos in a paper bag for about 10 minutes to sweat the peppers. Remove from the bag and with the side of a chef’s knife scrape off the charred skin. Remove the stem, seeds, and veins. Slice the poblano into long, thin strips.
Boil the potatoes until just fork tender. Cut the potatoes into cubes.
Heat up a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large non-stick or cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Add the onions and potatoes, season with salt and pepper and saute until nicely browned, about 10-15 minutes. Add the serrano or jalapeno, if using, and saute a few minutes. Add the roasted poblano strips and toss to combine. Taste and reason as needed.
Serve with fresh corn tortillas, avocado slices, cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds and/or queso fresco (or crumbly fresh goat’s cheese).