Vegetables

Cactus Paddles or Nopales

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).

Cactus Paddles 1

They grow onwards and upwards in a funny way, from paddle to paddle. Their skin is shinny and green, and it is covered in tiny, almost transparent, thorns that happen to be quite vicious when you try to remove them from the little bumps they grow out of. If the paddles aren’t cut, those bumps grow into tunas, or prickly pear fruits.

Nopales are so filling and versatile, that I am waiting to see them star as a top choice for vegetarians outside of Mexico. More so, as they are insanely nutritious, with vitamin A, C and a loadful of Iron. And to top that off, they are low, low, low fat. They can be cooked in many ways, from boiled, to steamed, sautéed, grilled and are delightful when pickled. Whichever way they are cooked, they have an irresistible chewy meaty bite and a mild flavor that has a tart edge to it.

One reason they haven’t spread like wild fire may be that many people don’t know how to cook them and when they try, they don’t know how to deal with the gelatinous, viscous, slimy liquid they exude as they cook. Now, you can’t let yourself get discouraged from that description, there are many ways to deal with that gooey liquid -think of cooking down mushrooms-. I have my favorite way, that always works!

Cactus Paddles 2

Another reason nopales haven’t become so popular outside of Mexico, yet, may be that they are not… so… easy… to clean. Skilled Mexican cooks get away with removing the thorns without being pricked and out in the country they tend to be cleaned with a machete. It does take some practice, but there are ways to go about it even without such a rough tool.

In Mexico, you find nopales sold in markets and stores already cleaned and even diced. You can find them like that in a few Latin or international stores abroad, but mostly, when found fresh, you have to clean them yourself. They are also sold in jars, cans or bags preserved in a lightly pickled juice. Not my favorite, but if that is the only way you find them, grab them, run for the checkout and give them a quick rinse before you use them. Better to get that, then none at all… take it from a nostalgic Mexican…

Huitlacoche

Whenever it starts pouring down rain in late Spring, I hanker for huitlacoche.

A true Mexican delicacy, also called cuitlacoche, it is a form of fungus, similar to some mushrooms, that grows on fresh corn. In the Mexican rainy season, which starts in April (some say March…) and ends sometime in September (some say October…), you can find huitlacoche at its peak.

It doesn’t look that pretty. It grows in an oversize and disproportionate manner on ears of corn, producing huge kernels that are black inside and covered with a somewhat silvery-white, sparkly and velvet textured skin.

Its flavor is intense and unmatchable: mushroomy, earthy, woody, a bit inky… reminds me of calamari ink.

Huitlacoche 1

In Mexico, it was considered a treat long before the Spaniards arrived. Corn being such a sacred crop, anything that grows on it, especially as delicious, was considered a true gift from the Gods. You can find it throughout the country in the markets, and it costs more than your regular pieces of corn.

It is hard to find it fresh in the US as many farmers have considered it a pest, although restaurants, cooks and chefs are increasingly calling for it. Even the James Beard Foundation held a huitlacoche dinner in 1989 to try to familiarize Americans with it. They called it, the Mexican truffle…

If you can’t find it fresh, you can surely find it in cans of very good quality and also frozen. Go for it!

There is so much you can do with it: from soups, to taco and quesadilla fillings, savory rice, and stuffed in crepes, chicken and fish. Just to name some… I especially like it cooked with a bit of onion, jalapeño and epazote.

Squash Blossoms

Squash blossoms are considered a true delicacy in Mexican cuisine. Available in rainy months, they fly out of the markets as soon as they are set on the floor mats and stands.

No wonder they are such a hot selling ingredient: They are gorgeous looking, with orange and green Fall colors, a velvety texture, a meaty and crunchy bite and a delicate and exuberant flavor.

Since they are also commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine, aside from finding them in the US in Latin markets, one can find them at Italian grocery stores. But one can also find them during the summer season in some grocery stores and Farmer’s markets.

Squash Blossoms 1

I was so excited to find them so fresh in Mexico last weekend, that I took many photos. I have to say, one can buy 10 pounds of flowers for the price of what one pays here, but oh well. Also, in Mexico they sell them already completely bloomed.

Though they taste much better when fresh, they have to be used quickly as they wilt fast even inside of the refrigerator. But they can also be found canned, and they do taste good as well.

To use them fresh, remove the lower part of the stem and rinse them thoroughly. I use all of the flower and upper stem, though some cooks do remove the green sepals. Squash blossoms tend to be paired with one or another fresh Chile, typically the Poblanos, and many times corn.

Squash Blossoms 2

Huauzontles

Huauzontles, also called Huazontles or Cuazontles, are a native plant to Mexico. Their scientific name is Chenopodium nuttalliae. Huauzontles gave a very thick main stem, oval leaves -that aren’t eaten- and thinner stems filled with edible green flowers that resemble broccoli or rapini, but are much more smaller and delicate.

They have a strong smell when you get close. Similarly as the Epazote, Huauzontles have a deep, clean and almost astringent smell. Some people say they taste similar to spinach or watercress. It seems to me, they have a welcoming and original, light bitter taste.

Though they have been commonly eaten during Lent for centuries, but they are also eaten throughout the year. Since they have become increasingly popular in the US -where they used to be considered a weed- they are now being imported and also grown. They are now available in many Latino and International stores.

In Mexico, huauzontles are considered a nutritious, exotic, filling and delicate ingredient.

The most common way to eat them is what is called tortas de huauzontle, where they are boiled, drained, covered in cheese, battered and then bathed in one or another kind of sauce. The thick stem is not removed and people pull the edible part of the huauzontles with their teeth. It is fun! Yet, it is also messy.

I am fond of making croquettes out of them, which I shall post shortly.

Chayote Squash

Chayote, also called chayote squash (it is from the squash family), choko, vegetable pear, mirliton and christophene, is a beautiful pear like shaped vegetable. Ironically, it has a texture similar to a pear that isn’t ripe, but less grainy. Yet the chayotes isn’t wholly sweet, it just has a sweet hint, barely a whisper, really. Its flavor is more neutral, like a cross between a pear and a cucumber… and zucchini. Well, you just have to give them a try.

Crispy, watery, very low-fat, with a clean and wholesome feel, chayote can be used many ways. Most typically in soups, as a warm vegetable side, a cold salad or very popularly stuffed either with a sweet or savory spin. They are most times cooked and best al dente, unless eaten stuffed.

There are different kinds of Chayotes. These here in the photo are probably the most common, and the easiest to find outside of Mexico. They are mild, with a mild green color and a mild, friendly and accommodating flavor. There are some that have a darker green color, and even purple tones, with thick and short thorns throughout their skin.

Chayotes tend to store well. They can last for more than a couple weeks in the refrigerator.

Tomatillos

Although they are widely available in the US, I don’t think I have met more than a couple people here who use fresh tomatillos in their cooking. It may be partly because people are not familiar with them or how to cook them, but…. they are not an appealing ingredient as far as looks go with the first impression! But let me tell you why you should definitely give them a try.

They are from the tomato family, but are much firmer than red tomatoes and less juicy. They are green and covered with a papery husk, that tends to be speckled with dirt and sometimes randomly torn or stuck to the flesh of the tomatillo. This is because the skin of the tomatillo is a bit sticky and waxy. They also have a somewhat humid aroma, from the moisture caught in between the skin and the husk along their travels and storage time.

However, don’t let yourself be deceived by their cover and first appearance. Once you bring them home, peel the husk and rinse them off, you will see what a beautiful ingredient they are. They have a sensuous shape and a deep green shiny color. You will see even more beauty once you try their flavor and see all the things you can use them for.

In my opinion, they are one of the most unique ingredients in Mexican cooking. A bit tart, in a very peculiar way, they work wonderfully along spicy and sweet ingredients.

To buy them, don’t be shy about touching them. You have to confirm they are firm, with a bright green color and not mushed, wrinkled or colorless, signs of being old and bitter. They should be fresh and you can tell by the husk which should be papery, regardless if it sticks to the tomatillo or not. So grab the tomatillo and peek inside the husk to see what you are getting before you put it in your basket!

Calabacita italiana or Italian zucchini

I think the most commonly used zucchini in Mexican cooking is either what in Mexico is called the calabacita italiana, or Italian zucchini, or the calabacita bola or round squash, which is similar to the Italian but rounder and smaller and used a lot in French cooking. Italian zucchini is different from the regular green zucchini found in most US stores, in that the later is large, thick and has a uniform dark green color. The Italian zucchini is smaller, a bit rounder with a chubbier appearance, and has a lighter green color that is randomly speckled with a cream color and is milder and sweeter in flavor.

See the Italian zucchini pictured above. As the years have gone by, I have seen them more frequently at international and Latino stores as well as some Farmers Markets here in the US.

Below see the Italian zucchini on top of the regular green zucchini so you can compare its looks. Now you have to bring them home to taste the differences (!). Though you can substitute one for the other in recipes, the Italian is a bit milder and sweeter.

Calabacita italiana 1

 

 

Jí­cama

Jí­camas are one of the many Mexican ingredients that luckily, have become readily available outside of the country. Also known as Mexican yams or turnips, they are also a root vegetable. But they are far from the latter in flavor, texture or cooking uses.

They are mostly (and as far as I know also successfully) eaten raw. No need to try to cook them, for many of the qualities they are loved for would be lost. They have a similar taste and crunch as the water chestnuts, but in my view, jí­camas are more refreshing, crispy, sweet and watery.

Their size varies, and that has little to do with how good they are. You can find very cute baby jí­camas in Mexico, but I haven’t seen them here. From the outside they look like a coconut once the hard green cover has been removed. Their light brown peel is very fibrous and should be removed before eating. Be sure to peel it well or a very thin white layer that is also fibrous and uncomfortable to eat remains there. Inside they are white and appear to be moist, given how watery they are.

In Mexico they are an incredibly popular snack, which is very convenient since they are low fat, filled with proteins, filling and easy to digest. They are eaten by themselves or combined with other vegetables or fruits, drizzled with fresh lime juice, salt and dried ground chile, such as Piquí­n, or a chile sauce, such as Bufalo or Valentina, to name a few. They are also a favorite ingredient for salads. Lately, when we have visited Mexico, I have seen sophisticated twists such as vegetarian versions of enchiladas and tacos, in which they are sliced incredibly thin and used as a wrap.

When you go look for Jí­camas, choose those hard to the touch and with no signs of moisture on their peel. Once you bring them home, refrigerate them until ready to use. But don’t let many days go by or they will age and become mushy and acquire an unappealing flavor. You know they have passed their time if once you peel and slice them, instead of white, the flesh has become light brown. After they are peeled and sliced, keep them covered in the refrigerator or they will dry considerably.