Cooking Like A Mexican

February 17, 2020 Edition
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

The holy trinity in prehispanic Mexican flora is maguey, mesquite and nopal. The three were the foundation for the hunting and gathering nomads in the Mexican plateau.

Today, I would like to shine a light on Nopales, a species of cacti that are consumed around the country. In Nahuatl, “Nochtli” or “nopalli” can be translated as “fruit of the earth.” This plant marked the end of the need to move from one territory to the next in Mexico in 1325 when Aztecs found the oracle: the nopal on which an eagle rested holding a tuna (prickly pear) in one of its talons.

According to the official story of Mexico, the national coat of arms was inspired by an Aztec legend regarding the founding of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs, then a nomadic tribe, were wandering throughout Mexico in search of a divine sign that would indicate the precise spot upon which they were to build their capital. The pear symbolized the human heart obtained from sacrifice, called “teonochtli” (divine prickly pear) or “cuauhnochtli” (eagle’s prickly pear). The cactus and the Eagle also represent the two main sources of the economy- agriculture symbolized by the nopal, and the sacred war represented by the eagle.

Nopal was sacred; cosmic, connected to the underworld by its roots and to the heavens by the tunas. Otomi goddess Acpaxapo only accepted cacti flowers as offerings. The dried stalk of the cacti, not meant for firewood, was burnt to announce with its heavy smoke the beginning of “Nuevo fuego”, new fire; a celebration that only happened every 52 years when both Mexica calendars coincided.

In day-to-day life Nopales were consumed boiled, grilled, raw; cooked with deer meat, turkey or red snapper; mixed with insect roe such as Axayacatl or ants now known as “escamoles”; or the flowers were used in salads. Yup, Mexicans, before the Spaniards came, ate salads! Tuna, the prickly pears were eaten from the plant directly or turned into syrup, “cheese” (kind of a very sweet jelly), or beer called “nochoctli”. Even the most common plague in the nopal was used, cochinilla was ground to obtain the truest granate color; used to paint the skin of warriors, dresses and clothes, and hair for some tribes. The slime was medicine for women who were in labor, as feet cream, Chapstick and sores when combined with insect fat; to fix the granate color on clothes and murals, to disinfect muddy water, as a type of glue in construction, etcetera. Nopal really was a key plant for everything.

Nopal did not, however, have its own god or goddess, as Maguey had Mayahuel, but Catholicism did name “el Cristo del Nopal” and “nuestra señora del nopal” variations of Christ and Virgin Mary, in an attempt of colonization.

In the 1960s, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, the president at that time, did not feel Nopal was important enough to be considered the national flower. He picked the Dahlia as the national flower of Mexico. Years later, Alvaro Obregon ordained ahuehuete as the national tree. Perhaps Nopal will be considered the national bush.

The cacti family originated in Aztec land and has now spread from south Canada to Patagonia in Argentina. There are around 1,400 species, of which 670 grow freely in Mexico, and 508 of those are endemic to the country. Mexican territory is considered as the most diverse in cacti plants of the continent but also, it’s the epicenter of nopal diversity.

There are two types of nopal, Opuntia and Nopales. The stems of both are very similar, but the flowers are what distinguishes one variety from the other. Opuntia flowers look like goblets, with small petals and are pollinated by insects. Nopalea flowers are long and have protruding pistils and are pollinated by hummingbirds! Opuntia are the ones used as vegetables. 

Nopales are now the stars of research used to make an alternative combustible, plastic, and many more awesome science things!

Most will recognize these oval green pads as the same spine covered Prickly Pear cactus that grow like weeds throughout the American Southwest. While they are virtually ignored and even scorned in the U.S., Nopales are considered a staple food in Mexico. After carefully peeling to remove its needles, the pads are boiled or roasted until tender. Nopales are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and scientists are now studying the cactus for other health benefits. Because they are low in carbohydrates Nopales are believed to help in the treatment of diabetes and the cactus also has been used to lower cholesterol levels.

Nopales have a light, slightly tart flavor, like green beans, and a crisp, mucilaginous texture.

You do not just take any wild plant and cook it. As I mentioned, there are many species of Opuntia, and in Mexico, we grow a specific kind in large farms specifically for this purpose. You do not want to take the spiniest, most fibrous pads for your nopalitos! Last year, millennial bloggers tried to make Nopales “happen” calling it “Green gold,” “Future plant,” and “World vegetable dromedary”. Many scientists have also said that we could be living off of Nopales when climate change does its thing and food shortages begin to be a problem in the future, but for Mexicans that future is now, because we like that taste and because it’s a part of our identity.

Once you have the pads in the supermarket, you may still need to clean the remaining spines out if they weren’t properly cleaned already. Opuntia pads spoil fast, you either keep them refrigerated or can them. And you still need to know how to prepare it so it actually tastes good. Otherwise, people from other cultures see no need to make the extra effort just for some health benefits. Lucky you, you have me to show you the way to cook Nopales!

Choosing the Cactus

When you are buying the cactus for this dish look for paddles that are bright green and plump. If they have started to shrivel and have lost their bright green color, they aren’t fresh. Also, choose the smaller thinner paddles which are younger and more tender.

How to cook

Add it to cold water in the pan, not hot water. This will help the slime not be as … slimy? Bring the cactus to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. As the cactus cooks it turns a darker green and releases slime. You will have to skim the slime off a number of times during cooking. The slime is called “baba” which translates to “drool” in Spanish. I know that that doesn’t sound very appetizing, but just remember cactus really is tasty. Cook just long enough that it has released most of the slime, about 10 minutes. Don’t overcook it. You want it to have a little crunch to it. Rinse the cactus under running water to remove any remaining slime. Rinsing it also stops it from cooking anymore so it retains some crunch.

Another technique is to soak it in a bowl of cold water with PLENTY of salt for 10 minutes and then rinse and boil for another five minutes. Add last to the recipe below, five minutes before the end.

And another one my father swears by and says it was the way his mother cooked Nopales: chop and cook with no additional water. The Nopales will release their own liquid and then it will consume, leaving them crispy, cooked and “dry” not really dry, but without the baba.

I bring to you, Nopales con costillas de Puerco en salsa. Or pork rib and Nopales stew.

Ingredients:

5 medium-large nopales

2 Ancho chiles

3 Pasilla chiles

2 Roma tomatoes

4 garlic cloves, peeled

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

2 1/2 pounds costillas de puerco (pork riblets)

1 onion, chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro (small handful), roughly chopped

Procedure:

    •    Place the ancho and pasilla chiles, tomatoes, and garlic cloves in a pot and cover with water by a couple of inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently for 7-10 minutes, or until soft but not falling apart.

    •    Scoop everything out of the water and transfer to the jar of a blender, leaving behind the seeds from the chiles (they should easily fall out or pull out). Add salt, cumin, and 2 cups of the cooking water to the blender. Put on the lid and puree until very smooth. Set aside.

    •    Place the ribs in a deep-sided pan, add 2 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently until all the water has evaporated. The ribs will release their fat. Allow them to cook, stirring around from time to time until they are all golden brown. This whole process should take 30-40 minutes.

    •    If there is still a lot of fat left in the bottom of the pan, drain off all but a tablespoon or two. Add the onions to the pot with pork and cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Add nopales and cook for another minute or two, stirring everything around. Pour reserved salsa over everything and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow everything to simmer gently for about 10 minutes.

    •    Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Enjoy with a pile of steaming tortillas and a cold cerveza! You can find me at ale.borbolla@gringogazette.com.