CACTUS PADDLE TOSTADAS
Tostadas de nopales
3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
3 pounds fresh nopales, rinsed, cleaned and diced; or, if canned, rinsed thoroughly
1/2 pound ripe tomato, chopped
3 tablespoons white onion, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped, optional
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped, seeding optional
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
Salt to taste
For the tostadas:
8 corn tostadas
1 cup refried beans
Garnishes of your choice: queso fresco, Mexican crema, avocado, salsa…
To Clean Fresh Cactus Paddles:
Rinse fresh cactus paddles under cold water, being careful not to prick your fingers with the small thorns on its surface. Using a vegetable peeler or small sharp knife, peel away the darker bumps where thorns grow, as well as the thorns, trying not to peel off all the outer dark green skin. Lay the paddles flat on a chopping board, then trim around approximately 1/4 inch of the edges and 1/2 inch of the thick base. Once cleaned, rinse and dice into 1/2-to-1-inch squares, to your liking.
To Use Cactus From A Can, Bag or Jar:
After you have removed the diced cactus from the jar or can, rinse it under water and drain well.
To Cook the Cactus:
Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a thick, large-sized skillet (one that has a lid) over medium-high heat. Add the diced cactus, stir in the salt and stir for a minute or two. Place the lid on the skillet.
Reduce the heat to medium and let the cactus cook and sweat for about 20 minutes, until it has exuded a gelatinous liquid that will begin to dry out (NOTE: If using cactus from a can or jar, already cleaned and cooked, just cook for an additional five minutes).
Take the lid off the skillet, stir and make sure most of that gelatinous substance has dried up. If it hasn’t, let the cactus cook for a few more minutes until it does. Let the cactus cool slightly. In a mixing bowl, toss the cactus with the tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice and salt. Like this, it can be eaten as a cactus paddle, nopal salad!
To Assemble the Tostadas:
Spread a layer of refried beans on each tostada. Spoon some the cooked cactus mixture on top, and add the garnishes of your choice. I add avocado slices, queso fresco, Mexican crema and salsa verde!
Forget soy and tofu; these are authentic Mexican recipes where produce, fruits and vegetables are naturally the stars.
Cleaning and cooking nopales can seem challenging if you are not familiar with the ingredient. Truth is, cleaning them, can be a bit daunting at first. That’s why I CANNOT wait for cleaned and diced fresh nopales to be readily available in grocery stores here in the US, just like they are in Mexico. But while that happens, let me give you some tricks.
First, to choose them, you want paddles that are bright green and although soft, not limp. The smaller the paddle the more tender it will be, but large ones are delicious too.
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It’s hard to think of Mexico without images of cactus plants. From landscapes to murals, to paintings, photos, plays, songs… and namely to the Mexican flag! Mexico’s coat of arms has an eagle eating a snake triumphantly standing on a cactus plant. As legend goes, that sign led the Aztecs to their promised land, Tenochtitlán.
But you know what is even harder? To think of a Mexican table without cactus, or nopales, on our plates. They’ve been a crucial ingredient since pre-Hispanic times.
Though there are hundreds of varieties, the most common is the Prickly Pear cactus. It has fleshy leaves or paddles, that are used as a vegetable in salads, stews, soups, eggs, stews, all sorts of appetizers and even smoothies and juices -a really popular one combines nopales with orange juice and my mom is fond of adding fresh spinach to the mix. They are used as a base to mount other ingredients onto, as a wrapper instead of thick tortillas and as a filler or topper for tamales, quesadillas, tostadas… They are found from breakfast to dinner options and anywhere in between (continue for more information and photos).
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Acitrón is one of the few ingredients used for Mexican cooking that is still very hard to find outside of Mexico. Acitrón is made with the pad or paddle -leaf- of a cactus plant called biznaga, which is similar to the prickly pear but rounder in shape and it also grows in dry land. To make acitrón, the leaves are peeled off the outer skin along with the little thorns, sometimes soaked in a lime solution, dried in the sun and finally simmered in a syrup made with water and sugar or honey, then left to dry again.
In Mexico it is sold in stores and markets in square or rectangular small blocks along with other candied fruits or vegetables, of which my favorite is the candied sweet potato or camote.
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