Fresh cactus paddles -- maybe you've seen them in the produce aisle. While not always common in supermarkets, the paddles are easily found in Latino markets, where they're known as nopales. The paddles may be prepared in a variety of ways (grilled, pickled, sauteed, etc.) and are added to a host of dishes from soups and stews to salads -- even tacos.
And while the paddles are often cleaned of needles before they're sold, it's not unusual to find a batch of prickly paddles at the market, with only a pair of tongs provided to protect your hands as you pick and choose what to take home.
Removing the needles and cleaning cactus takes care, but it's not that difficult. Check out the video for a demonstration.
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FRIJOLES AZTECAS (BLACK BEANS WITH NOPAL CACTUS)
Total time: 3 hours, 40 minutes plus soaking time for the beans / Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Adapted from Pulquería las Duelistas in Mexico City. In Mexico, nopalitos are always sold "de-spined." If you buy them with the spines, you will have to carefully remove them. Follow the directions in the accompanying video, or cut them away with a paring knife (garden gloves can help protect your hands). Hard-to-get spines can be pulled out with pliers. Epazote is generally available at Latin markets.
For the sauce:
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed
1 or 2 jalapeños, roughly chopped (seeded if desired)
1 small onion, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons sunflower oil or other cooking oil
1. In a large saucepan, place the tomatillos and jalapeños and add enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the tomatillos until they soften and turn a yellowish-green, about 10 to 15 minutes (timing will vary depending on the size). Drain the water and place the tomatillos and jalapeños in a blender with the onion. Blend to a rough puree (pulse the blender quickly, it should take only a few seconds).
2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot. Carefully add the tomatillo paste (it will splatter). Fry the paste over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens and darkens a little, about 5 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning and acidity with a little salt and sugar (to balance the acidity) as desired. Remove from heat and set aside. This makes about 2 cups sauce. Cool before serving.
Frijoles Aztecas assembly
1 pound (about 2 cups) black beans
2 quarts water, plus water for soaking the beans
2 onions, 1 quartered, the other finely chopped, divided
1 small bunch epazote or a pinch of dried oregano
2 tablespoons light olive or cooking oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound nopalitos, fresh nopal cactus, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon sea salt
1. In a large bowl, soak the beans in at least 6 cups of water for 8 hours, or preferably overnight.
2. Drain the beans and place them in a ceramic Mexican bean pot or a heavy casserole with 8 cups of water, the quartered onion and the epazote. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook the beans, covered, at a gentle simmer until tender, about 2 hours (time will vary according to the age and size of the beans). The beans should be soft but retain their texture.
3. When the beans are done, strain them from the liquid (save the liquid) using a slotted spoon, picking out as much of the onion and epazote as you can find, and discarding it. Place 1 cup beans and 1 cup of their cooking liquid into a blender and puree until smooth.
4. In a large, heavy-bottom soup pot heated over medium-high heat until hot, add the oil. Stir in most of the chopped onion (reserve a little to use as a garnish) and garlic. Add the nopalitos, frying until they are heated through, a few minutes more. Stir in the drained beans and the puree from the blender, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes to marry the flavors. Measure the remaining cooking liquid from the beans, adding enough water to come to 6 cups; stir the liquid in with the beans and nopalitos.
5. Bring the liquid to a slow boil, stirring from time to time. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook for 20 minutes to thicken the soup; the nopalitos will cook through and lose their bright color. Taste and add salt as desired.
6. This makes almost 3 quarts soup. Serve the soup in bowls, garnished with the sauce and a little of the reserved chopped onion.
Each of 8 servings: 277 calories; 14 grams protein; 40 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 615 mg sodium.
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