Category Archives: Ingredients

Exploring new to me, exotic, and interesting ingredients

10 Reasons to Rediscover Cauliflower

Yes, I think the cauliflower would creep quietly in. Its chaste, slightly coy presence makes this a vegetable that would never shout its qualities. ~Nigel Slater, Tender Greens

I’ve never heard anyone shouting from the rooftops about their endless love for cauliflower. Nor does it have the detestable reputation of brussels sprouts, lima beans, and the like. I don’t remember having much of an opinion at all about cauliflower, until I began my quest to increase the ratio of produce on my plate.

Guilt began creeping in whenever I would indulge in making my all-time favorite comfort food, homemade macaroni & cheese. At some point the idea of vegetables and cheesy, bubbly goodness merged (long before I ever considered this dilema.) Cauliflower, I remembered, is commonly coated in cheese sauce. I began substituting part of the pasta with chunks of steamed cauliflower. When I went on my gluten-free streak, I departed from pasta all together.

The funny thing is, I found I actually liked it. Yes, there will always be a special place in my heart for a big bowl of noodles. But whenever I replace a processed food with a vegetable, it makes the dish seem so much more a-live. A little sweet, a little nutty, a nicely cooked piece of cauliflower is a beautiful thing.

Here are my top ten reasons why this underappreciated, white-headed stepchild is worth a second look:

1)    Even though it’s not a dark leafy green, cauliflower is healthier than you might expect.

Whole Foods adopted Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scoring system to help shoppers make healthier choices. Their website has listings of these scores. Anything below 50 is considered not-so healthy. Kale, mustard and collard greens score 1,000, the highest possible. Cauliflower scores 295, which is higher than tomatoes, butternut squash, and any of the top listed beans, fruit, nuts and seeds, or whole grains.

2) Cauliflower is relatively cheap.

Prices range anywhere from $1-2 a pound, or even less depending on season and availability.

3) It’s available almost year round, and not just because of cold storage.

It is known as more of a cool weather vegetable, but varieties of cauliflower are in season all year long, except July and August.

It’s best to buy it whole. Curds should be tight, and even if you don’t eat the leaves they tell the story of how long it’s been since harvest.

4) It’s easy to grow in most climates.

Cauliflower can be grown in the winter in mild climates, and in spring and autumn in cooler areas. It will withstand light freezing. (For this information I consulted “The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide.” It has brief, but handy little descriptions for growing most herb and vegetables.)

I planted my very first “cheddar” cauliflower this last fall. It wintered nicely, and is now engaged in some interesting sprouting activities.

5) There are some interesting varieties to explore.

Besides plain old white, other colors that occur in nature (not dyed!), include green, purple, and orange. I don’t notice any major difference in flavor, although reportedly these other varieties don’t have as much of the bitterness that can be present in the standard white. (Personally I think that may have more to do with freshness.)

Nutritionally speaking, orange cauliflower has 25 times the level of vitamin A, and the purple in cauliflower is caused by the same anti-oxidants found in purple cabbage and red wine (according to wiki).

Green, turreted Romanesco was clearly cultivated beneath the red clouds of Mars. This is probably my favorite variety, just because of it’s dramatic, unearthly presence. Oh, and it tastes good too. This beauty came in my FFTY CSA box.

6) Cauliflower cooks with little fuss or fanfare.

Cut into 1” pieces and steam for about 7 minutes (in a large, covered bowl with a little water in the microwave, stirring frequently) then season or add a flavorful sauce. Or, sauté bite-sized pieces for 6-7 minutes over medium heat in a little butter or olive oil till the florets begin to brown, then braise- add a small amount of flavorful liquid and cover for a few more minutes till tender.

7) It is quite versatile, culinarily speaking.

Not sure what to do with it? Recipes abound! Puree it (the better to sneak more veggies into your unsuspecting kids’ dinners because of its neutral color and flavor, my dear!) Roasted, pickled, sautéed, gratin-ed, raw, etc. So many possibilities, so little time.

And of course, cauliflower is a good replacement for pasta – this vegetable is made for cheese sauce. (Check out my gluten-free, dairy-free cauliflower gratin here.)

8) We all need to eat more vegetables anyway.

Michael Pollon said it most succinctly: Eat (real) Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. ‘Nuff said.

9) It’s highly photogenic.

Even from the back.

10) Why does there always have to be 10? Ok, fine. Here’s my latest cauliflower recipe for you to sample:

Simple Curried Cauliflower


1 head cauliflower, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp paprika
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
¼ cup water, or so
salt to taste


1)    Heat oil in a large skillet to medium high heat. While the pan is heating, trim off stem and cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces.

2)    When the oil is hot but not smoking, add garlic. Cook just till garlic begins to brown, then add cauliflower.

3)    Sautee cauliflower for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add water, and cover till cauliflower is tender and water is mostly gone. Add a little more water if necessary to achieve desired toothsome-ness.

4)    Season with garam masala, paprika, and salt to taste. Finish with red wine vinegar and remove from heat. Serve warm.



Filed under Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Picky Eaters Anonymous, Techniques

Ode to Kale

When I first got kale in my CSA box last winter, I was a little intimidated. Tough, leathery greens, stiff stalks, essence of bitter seaweed, are you sure this is good for me? According to my Whole Foods grocery sack, kale and collards score 1,000, the highest nutritional value you can get from a single food. I don’t normally take health advice from a paper bag, but it is a rather impressive number. My only question was, how could I make it taste good?

I’ve heard of some interesting techniques when it comes to winter greens. Massaging the leaves with salt to make them tender sounds ridiculously intimate and labor intensive. Just the other day I read about brining kale so you can create a wilted salad with a creamy vinagrette, not a bad idea if you are into raw food. (I personally haven’t had a raw kale salad I’ve been able to smile through.) Last winter I made a chard pesto that was divine (recipe here). I’ve also tried roasting kale to make crispy  “kale chips.” Those were actually pretty tasty, but the recipe I used needs finessing to evenly distribute the seasoning, a project for another day.

My favorite method I’ve adapted is quick, it takes about 20 minutes, and is reminiscent of Southern greens. I eat it for breakfast because I’m the kind of weirdo that prefers olives to doughnuts at 7 a.m. Popeye ain’t got nothing on me!

Simple Southern Style Kale

1 bunch kale
½ onion, diced (optional)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup broth or water
2-3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet to medium heat. Cook onion, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until softened and starting to brown.

Remove thick stalks from kale and discard. (You can chop up the stalks and cook these too, but it takes longer to soften them. I’m not usually that patient.) Roughly chop kale and add to the onions.

Sautee for a few minutes stirring frequently until it starts to wilt down.

Add broth or water and cover the pan (I use my pizza pan as a lid since my large skillet didn’t come with one). Cook for about 5-10 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. 

Turn off the heat and add apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Crispy bacon bits or diced ham and a glass of orange juice make this a complete breakfast.

Ode to Kale

lacy, leathery dragon wings
bitter turned sweet
by heat, vinegar, and salt

Popeye’s no match
for my breakfast Knock Out


Filed under Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

A Pumpkin Latte Detour

Have you ever heard of a sweet potato latte? Apparently it has become popular in Japantown, San Francisco (article link here). I was intrigued because I’m always looking for new ways to incorporate more vegetables in my day. It had never occurred to me to put them in my breakfast beverage!

I set out to make my own at home, and of course my mission took a detour. I had two butternut squash waiting to be roasted so I did those at the same time I roasted the sweet potato. (I use butternut squash puree in place of canned pumpkin, and keep it stocked in my freezer.) I made pumpkin bread with the fresh puree, and then had an idea. If sweet potato works in a latte, why not pumpkin (aka butternut squash)?

It instantly became my new favorite breakfast drink, happily taking the place of my chai latte since I’m not doing caffeine right now. I measured out the puree into little ramekins and put them in my fridge so I have a quick warm drink in the making for the next few days. I’m not sure if canned would taste as good as fresh, but I think it would be worth a try.

According to the article, this drink is traditionally caffeine free, but espresso can be added for kicks.

Pumpkin Latte

1 cup milk
4 Tablespoons pumpkin or butternut squash puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons honey or sugar
a tiny pinch (less than 1/8 teaspoon) each of ground cinnamon, ginger, and either allspice, or cardomom

Mix all ingredients in a microwave safe cup. Heat till warm, 1-1 ½ minutes. Froth in a blender or with a handheld frother.

I still intend to try the sweet potato latte, once my butternut fixation eases. I’ll try to keep you posted.


Filed under Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Uncategorized

Broiled Tomato Pasta & Pizza Sauce

A sun-ripened tomato is summer in a sphere. My garden dream of having so many tomatoes I would need to make huge batches of pasta sauce to freeze just so they wouldn’t go to waste have puttered out.

My three beautiful heirlooms pulled a few tricks,

but when all was said and done, didn’t put on as big of a show as I had hoped. I blame our uncharacteristically mild weather, and my new attempt at growing them in pots. Next year, my tomatoes will be free range.

Still dreaming of fresh pasta sauce, I bought 6 lbs of tomatoes for $3 at the farmer’s market. I’ve experimented a few times now with broiling as an homage to the Mexican method of charring. It has become my new favorite way of making a fresh Italian tomato sauce. It’s a super quick and simple method that brings out the sweetness, but doesn’t fully cook them so the sauce retains a nice freshness.

Broiled Tomato Pasta & Pizza Sauce

6 lbs tomatoes (obviously you can make a smaller batch, but I like to cook big and freeze the rest for a lazy day)
3-4 tablespoons good olive oil
3 cloves garlic
fistful of fresh basil leaves
a little salt and pepper

1)   Preheat broiler.

2)   Wash and dry tomatoes and remove stems. Single layer them in a rimmed cookie sheet or broiler pan without the grate. Drizzle with a little olive oil.

3)   Broil for 10-15 minutes, two rows down from the top rack, till the peels blister and start to blacken.

4)   While the ‘maters cook and cool, mince garlic and basil and put in blender with 3-4 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt & pepper. (Cue the whining-Why do I have to cut stuff up before it goes in the blender? Because dear Henry, then you can blend less and have a thicker sauce.)

5)   Once tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and toss into blender (minus peelings).

6)   Blend it up in two batches, then season to taste in a large bowl.

7)   Freeze in plastic storage bags or containers. (I measure them into 1, 2, or 3 cup servings.) 6 lbs makes about 5 cups of sauce, and will last several months in the freezer.

8)   To reheat, cut off the plastic bag. Defrost in a bowl in the microwave for about 4-5 minutes at regular heat, stirring every 1-2 minutes.

There is nothing like a little summer sun to help recharge the spirits, but in the midst of a wet, gray winter, hopefully this will carry you through. Mangia!


Filed under Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, Meal Planning, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

Carpe Diem! Chocolate Peanut Butter Potato Chip Cupcakes

I know I promised a non-dairy series in my last post. I still intend to deliver on that, but time always marches on revealing new paths. Feel free to protest. This is the United States after all.

Tangential trajectory for today: Cupcakes and Labor Day.

Today we celebrate the economic and social contributions of our workers with a day of rest and parties. It’s also the symbolic end of summer, picnics, and BBQ season. (Of course we Californians barbeque and surf year round.) Ladies stop wearing white, and the new school year begins if it hasn’t already. Fall begins to sneak in cooler mornings, and the skies fire up and darken earlier each evening.

Cupcakes are the perfect dessert for picnics and barbeques. No need to fuss with utensils or plates. You can grab one on your way to the three-legged race. There are many reasons one shouldn’t eat cupcakes, but I can think of one very good reason we should: Carpe diem!

My Aunt Rose has a framed saying on her kitchen wall. At the top in big letters it declares, “Calories don’t count if…” followed by a long list: if it’s a holiday, a birthday, it’s homemade, etc. This definitely influenced my eating philosophy. I try to eat healthy on a day-to-day basis, but I do believe calories shouldn’t count if it’s a special day, and someone cared enough to make something special to share.

Oh look, today is Labor Day, a holiday! And what could be more all American than chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter-potato chip frosting? Not much, really. Cacao beans, peanuts, and potatoes are all native to the Americas.

Back up a sec, did she just say potato chips on cupcakes? Yes, yes I did. You know deep down a salted crunch goes perfectly with peanutty frosting and chocolaty baked goodness. Maybe not so deep down if you’ve ever been intrigued by bacon cupcakes, or salted caramel.

These cupcakes came to life a few months ago when I set out to make a dessert using potato chips. I began by choosing a classic flavor combination known to play nice in both savory and sweet applications: chocolate and peanut butter. My first concept was a chocolate tart topped with peanut butter frosting and crushed kettle-cooked potato chips.

I tweaked my favorite chocolate sheet cake recipe from Cook’s Illustrated’s New Best Recipes by using more chocolate, and Greek yogurt instead of buttermilk. I wanted a denser cake, and it worked pretty well if a bit dry. I baked it in two round cake pans instead of a 9×13 to get a thinner cake. I debated on layering, but didn’t want to be ridiculously excessive so I opted to use only one layer.

Besides experimenting with the cake texture, there were two minor problems. First up, leftovers. Unless you have the perfect-sized group, it is difficult to (physically) eat the whole tart at once. Surprisingly, sogginess was not the issue. However, the chippies staled in less than a day. Cupcakes were the obvious solution; they’re single serving and can be topped with chips just before eating.

The second minor problem, kettle chips aren’t salty enough for a good contrast. I compensated by sprinkling the cake with a little sea salt. This worked well, but I decided to try saltier chips next time.

The second time I tried this dessert was for my in-laws annual 4th of July block party. The cupcakes were nicely portable, and Lay’s potato chips were perfectly salty, but I still wasn’t thrilled with the cake. I tweaked the chocolate sheet cake again using plain yogurt instead of Greek yogurt because it has more moisture, but the chocolaty-ness was deeper in the Greek version. Back to the drawing board!

Today, I tried a different chocolate cake recipe, this time Cook’s Country’s homemade version of a Hostess Chocolate Cream Cupcake. I wanted a dense, not too sweet cake with dark chocolate flavor. In other words, the polar opposite of a cake mix. I was intrigued by this recipe’s technique of “blooming the cocoa” with boiling water. It calls for much less chocolate than my favorite sheet cake, (only 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate & 1/3 cup cocoa powder versus 8 oz semisweet & ¾ cup cocoa powder) but I hoped this blooming method might make up the difference. Also, I liked the sugar ratio of the chocolate cream cupcakes better – ¾ cup sugar to 1 cup flour v. 1 ½ cups sugar to 1 ¼ cups flour.

They were fun and simple to make. Before even tasting, my three year old said, “It smells like chocolate cupcakes! This is the yummiest thing I ever ate.”

“Mommy, it’s kind of gooey.”

As soon as they were out of the oven, she showed me which one was hers.

To top them off, I did a new take on my peanut butter frosting. It was a bit too rich, so I cut the cream cheese, butter, and some of the sugar. I was happy with my new version, much more peanut flavor. Chopped salted peanuts would be a great way to boost the peanut flavor even further.

Peanut Butter Frosting, Take II

½ cup creamy natural peanut butter (I used Earth Balance)
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 Tablespoons milk

Blend all ingredients in a food processor, just until smooth. This makes enough for about 16-18 cupcakes.

Don’t forget the potato chips! Put a handful of chips in a small bowl and crush them up with your fingers. Press the frosted cupcake into the chips, and fill in the gaps with more chip crumbs. Eat immediately, napkins optional.

Despite what they say, just one is more than satisfactory.


Filed under Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, New Recipes, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Techniques

Macaroni & Cheese Free Mac & Cheese

Macaroni & cheese is the comfort and warmth of my childhood in a bowl. It seriously merits poetry. 

Food Memories
anchor deep and pull sharp
sharper than a picture’s soft

Soft boiled eggs and buttered toast,
my dad
biscuits with sausage gravy,
Grandma Faye
homemade mac & cheese,
that’s my mom
in all her Walton’s glory

Food memories live in the soft spot
under your ear, behind your jaw
and in the passages
of your nose

They warm your insides
steam up your windows
hug your throat
and tell you not
to forget your raincoat

What then would induce me to stop eating my favorite food on earth? An experiment, of course. In my latest hypothesis dairy is the potential villain, the trigger for eczema that has plagued me for the last thirteen years.

A few months ago I read this article about the relationship between inflammation and chronic conditions (hay fever, arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even depression to name a few).

There are plenty of potential environmental triggers for these conditions, but there’s also a good chance it’s an undiagnosed food sensitivity (not to be confused with food allergies which are life threatening). According to the article up to 40 percent of the population has a gluten sensitivity, “enough to notice brain fog, bloating, gastric distress, or fatigue after eating wheat.” Dairy sensitivity is similar.

The article suggests eliminating a food type for two weeks to see if symptoms are reduced. Then, add the potential allergen back into your diet and see what happens. (This should probably be done under a doctor’s care, but I kind of skipped that part.)

I’ve suspected allergies as a potential trigger for my eczema, but hadn’t considered food sensitivities. Since then I’ve toyed with the idea of using myself as a human guinea pig. I recently brought it up (again) during a conversation with a friend, and finally decided to dive in headfirst. I chose to go dairy-free first because it seemed easier to leave cheese off a sandwich than to make a sandwich without bread.

I made some really interesting discoveries during those two weeks, and will probably do a series of posts (including 5 new recipes!) One thing’s certain, there’s no substitute for cheese-sharp cheddar, Brie, and bleu, dill havarti, chevre, and Gouda too. I tried a vegan “cheddar cheese” on my salami sandwich. (Does this make kittens cry?) It was unforgivably squishy, like a raw, salty tofu. Sad kittens or no, that sham of a fake cheese went straight into the garbage.

Two weeks without dairy wasn’t as hard as I thought. Although, towards the end I went grocery shopping and found myself wistfully buying cheddar-colored foods like yellowish orange split peas, and this gorgeous orange cauliflower.

For the last year or so I’ve been substituting cauliflower for the noodles in my homemade mac & cheese recipe, pretending the veggies cancel out the cheese sauce (technically, this is a cauliflower gratin, but it satisfies the same craving). I thought, might as well take a shot at making a non-dairy “cheese” sauce. I’d heard of nutritional yeast as a vegan substitute for cheese a few years ago. It couldn’t possibly be as nightmarish as that slab of salty orange tofu. Why not?

Nutritional yeast has a nutty, cheesy flavor on par with a good 80s pop song. It’s actually a de-activated yeast in the same family as edible mushrooms. (Yes, there’s a fungus among us. Not very appealing? Consider it’s a replacement for moldy milk, aka cheese.) It’s a complete protein that comes in flake and powder form similar to grated Parmesan, and is often fortified with B vitamins.

I based my recipe on a vegan mac & cheese I found on vegweb, altering it substantially based on the reviews. I also used fresh onion rather than relying on garlic or onion powder. I kicked up the flavor even further borrowing a technique from curry making. The recipe called for oil, so l figured I might as well fry the onions to deepen the flavor without taking much time.

Honestly, the resulting dish blew me away. The caramelized onion and cheese flavor is deeply satisfying, not unlike its muse. It comes together faster than traditional macaroni and cheese. No waiting for milk to boil! Of course you can use noodles instead of cauliflower if you want it closer to the real thing.

Macaroni & Cheese Free Mac & Cheese
Serves: 6

“Cheese” Sauce:
¾ cup non-dairy milk (I used original whole grain rice milk, but might try unsweetened next time)
½ cup nutritional yeast
¼ cup water
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp white pepper (use black pepper to make it gluten-free)
2 tsp (or 2 squirts) mustard
½ cup oil (vegetable, corn, something neutral)
1 onion, sliced thin

1 medium head cauliflower, steamed in
½ cup water

Breadcrumbs (optional):
4 inch long piece of whole grain baguette or 1 ½ slices sandwich bread
1 Tbsp non-dairy butter spread (I like Earth Balance)
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast


1)   Preheat oven to 400º. Heat oil to med-med high heat in a large cast iron skillet while you slice the onion. When oil is shimmering, fry onion 5-7 minutes till deep brown in spots. Remove from heat and let cool.

2)   Meanwhile, remove core and cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces. Steam in microwave safe bowl with ½ cup water. Cover with paper towel and microwave for 2 minutes, stir well, heat another 2 minutes, stir again. Steam another minute or so until fork tender. Put cauliflower in a large, shallow baking dish.

3)   When cool enough, add onions and the frying oil to blender with remaining sauce ingredients and blend well.

4)   Pinch bread into smaller pieces and put in food processor with butter spread and tablespoon nutritional yeast. Process for 30-60 seconds till crumbs are tiny.

5)   Pour sauce over cauliflower and stir to coat. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Bake at 400º for 15-18 minutes until bubbly and starting to brown around the edges. Serve warm and cozy. Leftovers keep well in the fridge for at least five days.


Filed under Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

Nopales {Cactus} for Dinner; 3 Methods, 2 Recipes

~the daily tangent~

I started writing really bad poetry my freshman year in college, before I knew what a poem is. It began with an angry burst of consciousness boiling over onto the typepad. They were not poems so much as disjointed tangible images that ignored conventional punctuation and didn’t reach the end of the line.

I knew they weren’t stellar, but it was therapeutic. What’s more, my English professor at the time, Daniel Chacón, encouraged me to continue. “Keep writing, write about something real.” I was so appreciative I dedicated my second book of self-published “poems” to him. Of course I never told him that.

While in his class we read tantalizing bits of Octavio Paz, and Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation; An Argument with My Mexican Father – a book so richly edible I had to finish even in the midst of finals.

He taught me what it means to be a Chicano, and that semester I entered a MEChA essay contest of the same name. I won first place, and had to give a speech at the Cinco de Mayo celebration. I began with, “Yes, I’m know I’m just a white girl…”

Well, you may have noticed this white girl is not afraid of using ingredients outside her cultural norms. Nopales {cactus} are native to Mexico, and comfortable in south of the border cooking, but not so much in non-Hispanic suburban California homes.

Why is that? Surely it’s not those nubby little spines (which are soft until they mature). I blame fear of the new, but also, the internet. There is a noticeable shortage of cactus recipes and nutritional information on-line. This needs to be remedied for several reasons:

~for your health~
According to wiki, nopales are rich in soluble & non-soluble fiber, Vitamins A, C, K, riboflavin, B6, and minerals. It also notes the addition of nopales to a mixed meal reduces the glycemic effect, and may help in the treatment of diabetes.

~in good taste~
My first culinary experience of nopales came when a friend of mine’s mother made pork and cactus tacos. I was in high school, and had no idea you could eat cactus. It’s a little tangy, with a texture that’s a cross between green beans and bell pepper. It’s surprisingly good.

~in the spirit of local, sustainable, organic~
Cactus grows remarkably well in California’s semi-arid climate, but is adaptable to cooler climates as well. My gardening goal is for everything in my yard be edible, so I was pretty excited when our next-door neighbor offered us a grizzled-looking cactus pad last year. She told us to just stick it in the ground and it will grow. This fits perfectly with my light green thumb.  My husband dug a hole in the bed against the house, packed it in there, and it grew its first arm within a couple of months.

Earlier this summer, four purplish, spiky blooms emerged. I first thought, prickly pears! But they turned out to be more venturing arms. This is it, time to cook! But I was nervous, and procrastinated. The soft nubs began to form sharp stickers on the outer edges.  It was now or never!

Due to the lack of consistent, detailed cooking instructions, I have one word to describe my first nopales attempt-trepidatious. I had some beautiful cherry tomatoes, and an avocado from my CSA box. Sounded like salsa to me.

I remembered someone on Top Chef preparing cactus, and how tricky it was because it’s very slimy on the inside, similar to okra. To remedy this, every recipe I found said to boil it for widely varying lengths of time. I didn’t want flabby cactus {the way canned nopales are} so I decided to boil it whole for just three minutes. Salt is commonly used to extract liquid, so I went through multiple salting phases. It was still a little oozy when I added it to the salsa, but it tasted surprisingly fresh. The avocado and tomatoes camouflaged the extra moisture. We ate the entire bowl in one sitting.

The second time around went much better. I made a cactus “bruschetta”, and streamlined the boiling method:

To boil nopales:

1)   Remove stickers and nubs with a vegetable peeler. Trim the edges, {this is where spines mature first} and then the sides.

2)   Dice cactus, and put into salted, boiling water for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, and let steep 3 more minutes. Drain, lightly salt, then leave it in the colander to continue draining while you prepare the rest of your components.

After my first two bonsai-tastic attempts, I finally sat down and looked at two of my cookbooks that actually had nopales recipes:

Cocina de la Familia – given to me by the same friend whose mother prepared my first nopales. He declared it an authentic Mexican cookbook, and it is. It is so tradicional that the one nopales recipe says only to, “boil in small pieces.”

Mexico One Plate at a Time – Rick Bayless, my anthropological culinary hero {I minored in anthropology} says to use dry heat; grill, roast, or cook them on a griddle. I should have looked at this cookbook first, and will try one of his techniques next. Here are his instructions for roasting and grilling:

To roast nopales:

1)   Remove stickers and nubs with a vegetable peeler. Trim the edges, {this is where spines mature first} and then the sides.

2)   Cut into ¾” squares, toss with a little olive oil and salt.

3)   Bake on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes at 375 till all the liquid has evaporated and they are tender.

To grill nopales:

1)   Remove stickers and nubs with a vegetable peeler. Trim the edges, {this is where spines mature first} and then the sides.

2)   Clean, and leave whole. Brush or spray both sides with oil.

3)   Lay them directly on the grill grate and cover, about 5 minutes a side until browned in places, dark olive green in others, and limp looking when you pick them up with tongs.

4)   Cool completely on a wire rack before dicing and seasoning.

My recipes:

Cactus Salsa

4 nopales {young cactus pads}
1 avocado, pitted, diced, then scooped out of the peel
½ small basket cherry tomatoes, quartered and most of the gooey seeds squished out
juice of 1 lime
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ jalapeno, minced
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped fine


1)   Prepare nopales using one of the above methods.

2)   Prepare the rest of the veggies and put in a nice bowl.

3)   Add cactus. Salt & lime to taste.

4)   Scoop it up with tortilla chips, serve over tacos, or salt & peppered pork chops pan-cooked in a little olive oil.

Cactus Bruschetta    

1-2 nopales (young cactus pads)
1 small basket cherry tomatoes, quartered and most of the gooey tomato seeds squished out
1 small bunch fresh basil, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tablespoons good olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Salt & pepper


1)   Prepare nopales using one of the above methods.

2)   Prepare the rest of the veggies and put in a nice bowl.

3)   Add cactus. Salt, pepper, & vinegar to taste.

4)   Serve on toasted, crusty bread, over roast chicken, or salt & peppered pork chops pan-cooked in a little olive oil.

This is dedicated to Prof. Daniel Chacón. Thank you for being a true teacher.


Filed under Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques