Today Lesley Tellez of The Mija Chronicles is taking over the airwaves for a guest post. A mutual friend introduced me to Lesley a few years back — at the time, she still lived in San Francisco and was about to move to Mexico City. During the past few years, I’ve followed her online as she’s explored the culture, cuisines, and curiosities of the modern Mexican culture and wanted to share that all with you.
As an unofficial ambassador for exploration of accessible Mexican foods, she is sharing a twist on a classic with a recipe for her version of stuffed nopales (aka prickly-pear cactus). Check it out below and be sure to peruse her site as well for a look into life south of the border.
A testament to Lesley’s work, she is a fellow nominee for this year’s Saveur Best Food Blog Awards, with The Mija Chronicles a finalist for Best Culinary Travel Blog. So, check it out and show your support. (And, while we’re on the subject, consider this a gentle nudge to show your support for my site — unless you have already, in which case, I’m sending you virtual thank you notes!)
Read on for Lesley’s story and her simple yet delicious nopales recipe.
One of my worst food memories as a kid was eating canned cactus.
My mom used to serve it with eggs, and I hated it – no necessarily because it tasted bad, but because it was cactus. How could a person eat cactus? It was up there with eating tree bark.
Now that I live in Mexico City, I eat cactus al the time. It’s a staple here: locals eat prickly-pear cactus paddles in salads, juices, grilled, or boiled and diced and mixed in stewed juices called guisados. I’ve come to love it, especially the grilled kind. The taste is sort of like a tart green bean.
I’m always looking for new ways to use cactus, because it’s nutritious and cheap. A few years ago I ordered a stuffed nopales dish (nopal is the word for prickly-pear cactus) at a restaurant, and it stuck with me – the melty cheese on top, the creamy beans inside. It was cactus comfort food. This is my attempt at recreating it.
This dish works great if you’ve got leftover beans in the fridge, or a can you’re not sure what to do with. Just make sure you doctor ‘em up nice, because the beans are the meat (if you will) of the construction. And resist the urge to add too much cheese It’ll drown out the rest of the ingredients.
Stuffed Nopales with Black Beans, Cheese, and Roasted Red Pepper Recipe
By Lesley Tellez of The Mija Chronicles
- Makes: 4 servings
Note: When buying cactus, make sure the paddles are bright green and not brown in spots. Many grocery stores sell them already cleaned, but sometimes upon further inspection, they’ve got a few spines. You’ll want to remove those with a sharp knife — the LA Times has a good tutorial on how to clean nopales. It’s best to use the cactus as soon as you can, and don’t store it in a plastic bad in your refrigerator as that will create moisture and make the paddles go bad. The cactus can be boiled a day ahead of time and stored in an airtight container. If you don’t have bean broth, you can use water or chicken/vegetable broth.
- For the cactus:
- Kosher salt
- Half a red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
- 8 medium cactus paddles
- For the beans:
- 2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 (14 ounces) can), with about ¾ cup bean broth
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- About 1 tablespoon canola, grapeseed, or peanut oil
- 1/4 red onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped canned chipotle pepper in adobo
- For the toppings:
- 1 1/4 cups (about 3 ounces) grated mild white cheese, such as Monterey Jack
- 1 red, yellow, or orange pepper, roasted, peeled and sliced into thin strips
- Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)
- For the cactus:
Fill a large bowl halfway with ice water and set aside. Fill a large saucepan about halfway with well salted water and add the onion and garlic. Bring water to a boil over high heat, then add the cactus paddles. (The water should just about cover the cactus.) Cook until the paddles turn a khaki-green color and are slightly soft, about 3 minutes.
Remove cactus from boiling water and immediately place in the ice water bath to halt the cooking. While the cactus paddles cool, heat the oven to 425°F (or to broil) and arrange a rack at least 6-inches from the heat source. When cactus is cool, remove from ice water, pat dry, and discard water.
- For the beans:
Stir beans together with cumin, Mexican oregano, salt, and ground black pepper. Heat a medium frying pan over medium heat and add the oil. When oil is shimmering, add the onion and cook, stirring a few times, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and chopped chipotle, stirring until the oil turns a lovely reddish color and you start to smell a chili-garlic aroma.
In one quick pour, add the beans and about half of the broth to the pan. Using a bean masher — in Mexico this is called an aplastador (I use a wooden one just like these Rancho Gordo bean mashers) — or the bottom of a cup, mash the beans into a paste. Add more broth if the beans look too dry and take care not to overheat the beans or they’ll dry out too quickly. Once you have your desired consistency, cook the beans for about 5 minutes, stirring often so they don’t stick, until flavors combine.
To assemble nopales, line up cactus paddles on a rimmed baking sheet. Add a thin layer of beans to each cactus paddle and sprinkle evenly with cheese. Bake until cheese is golden-brown and bubbly and cactus is knife tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add roasted red peppers in a pretty little mound in the middle to garnish, and top with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro.
You can read more about Lesley, her life in Mexico, and check out her other recipes at The Mija Chronicles