Tag Archives: cooking

You may not want to hug the bug on your plate, but embrace it nonetheless

… Several years ago, in a reputable Thai fusion place not far away …

Halfway through dinner one evening I was appalled to find an inchworm doing its cute little humpbacked crawl through my noodle salad. The waiter was not sympathetic. “Our produce is all organic,” he sniffed.

I’m not particularly squeamish. I grew up a small town farm girl, and always tell my girls, “Dirt don’t hurt.”

I’m also a firm believer in the many benefits of organic produce, but that doesn’t excuse skimping on washing before service. When I insisted on a refund he just shrugged and took my plate away. Only half my meal was comped, and I walked out hungry after eating half of a worm’s playground. I hoped he wasn’t missing any friends.

The little incher wasn’t as big and hairy as this guy from the pumpkin patch last fall, but still. That was my first, and last time at this unnamed Sacramento restaurant.

… Flash forward, but not too far, to last week on my living room couch …

I read an article by Harold McGee in Issue 3 of “Lucky Peach” talking about “Handling Herbs.” Spanking mint as opposed to muddling it for mojitos to ‘liberate its minty essence without over-damaging the cells and eliciting a vegetal quality’ was a surprising tip, but I was most intrigued by his discussion of how bugs can make organic produce healthier and even taste better.

Maybe that’s why my backyard sage is so wonderful…

According to McGee, the flavors of herbs and spices come from the chemicals they make and store for chemical warfare against bugs, animals, and microbes. You wouldn’t munch on a cinnamon stick because it doesn’t taste good on its own, but if you simmer apple cider with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, the resulting infusion is autumn comfort in a cup.

Thus, if a plant is damaged by pest invasion, that sends a message to boost its chemical defenses (aka antioxidants, aka flavor). McGee suggests reconsidering buying the less-than-pretty bug-eaten produce at the farmer’s market as it may be tastier and healthier than it’s more presentable neighbors. (!)

I’ve often heard food is only as good as the soil it’s grown in, but this was the first I’d heard that bugs can actually improve a plant’s nutrients and flavor. I guess it’s true for people and plants alike; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

… And then, at a restaurant recently nominated for a James Beard award …

I had my second meet and greet with an unexpected critter in a restaurant setting. A few minutes upon arrival, while admiring the trays of artfully laid black trumpet mushrooms, locally grown oranges, key limes, and Persian cucumbers, I spotted a tiny mite-like thing crawling near my place setting. I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t really want to share my dinner with him, so I asked my husband to “get it.” He brushed his thumb over it, leaving a dark brown paint stroke on the white linen. I didn’t bother mentioning it to the waiter, and the entire meal was unforgettably decadent.

… Checking out the rearview …

I doubt that Thai-fusion waiter was up on his McGee so many years ago, but maybe I’ll reconsider my boycott. I’m can’t say I’m ready to slurp a scorpion lollipop like these insect treats we discovered at Pismo Beach last summer, but maybe it’s not such a bad sign if a healthy critter hops on my plate.

What do you think?



Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

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

Thanksgiving Improv

This post may seem a bit after the fact seeing as Thanksgiving is over. In my defense, it involves leftovers, super quick roasted nuts perfect for any occasion, and an epiphany: Jazz and Thanksgiving are soul mates.

Jazz by nature is so fluid it resists definition, but I tried anyway. Jazz could be defined as two conflicting cultures finding beauty in each other’s musical traditions, an embrace that results in music new, surprising, and glorious.

Thanksgiving could be defined as two conflicting cultures brought together by their mutual celebration of the harvest bounty (so the story goes).

Solidly rooted North American traditions, both are the result of two cultures in direct competition finding a common ground through art. Through mingling, new culinary and musical legacies were born.

I’m not sure exactly why jazz came into play. I wanted to write about Thanksgiving, but have been singing mostly blues notes as of late. There is so much to be thankful for, but instead of the usual lilting melody, this restless body is composing a cacophony that doesn’t match the love in my life.

Maybe I need to reinterpret my time signature. Just because it is dark when I wake, and dark when I leave work doesn’t mean there is less leisure time. Dark spaces feel smaller, but that’s what flash lights and desk lamps are for.

There is one thing that usually makes me feel better. In the jazz lexicon it would be called improvisation through syncopation; being open to new melodies (aka a dish) by using an unexpected deviation (combining ingredients not usually combined).

I set out on a culinary mission last weekend with that very thought in mind. Winter squash and nuts were the riff (repeated refrain). My plan was to make Maple Chipotle Nuts, and my very first homemade pumpkin pie. I began by making the nuts, and roasting and pureeing a sugar pumpkin. As I set out to make a pie the next day, it seemed only natural to make a Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie. The real surprise was my latest creation, an Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Nuts is a recipe I adapted from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op biweekly ads. I first made them as part of a clean-out-the-freezer project, and have since made them three times in the last week and a half. They are sweet, a little spicy, and seriously addicting.

Maple Chipotle Nuts

1 pound unsalted raw nuts (any mix of pecans, green pumpkin seeds aka pepitas, almonds, walnuts, peanuts)
1 cup maple syrup
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1)   Heat oven to 325. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

2)   Mix maple syrup and brown sugar in a small microwave safe bowl. Heat in microwave till sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. Stir in chipotle powder, salt, and pepper.

3)   Combine nuts and maple syrup mixture. Stir till evenly coated. Spread nuts on lined baking sheet.

4)   Bake 6-7 minutes. Stir, then bake another 6-7 minutes till bubbly. Put nuts in a heat safe bowl and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to break them up.

5)   There’s plenty to snack on, sprinkle on a salad with bleu cheese or feta, and make Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie.

Maple Chipotle Pumpkin Pie

Even though it was my first time making a pumpkin pie, that didn’t stop me from tweaking the recipe. (Never does!) I got a small sugar pumpkin in my CSA box a couple of weeks ago, and finally got around to doing something with it. My 8 year old loves pumpkin pie, and begged me to make one. I warned her I was going to put nuts on top, but she could take them off. She allowed me to proceed.

You can use any piecrust you like. I used the “No Fear Pie Crust” from Cook’s Country. (This is a subscription website, but this particular recipe is free! Although it might be just be free during the holidays.) I highly recommend it. I took the recipe title for granted, and let my three year old help me make it with great results. Also, it stayed nice and crisp even though it took us a few days to finish the pie.

The filling I used is another free one from Cook’s Country, their “Pumpkin-Praline Pie.” You can click on the link or just follow my simplified instructions:

In a medium saucepan, combine:

15 oz plain pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt

1)   Once all the filling ingredients are in the pan, turn heat to medium high. Stirring frequently, heat till bubbling and thickened, about 4 minutes.

2)   Remove from heat and whisk in 1 cup evaporated milk, 3 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

To finish the pie:

1)   Pour filling into warm piecrust. (The filling is actually a little too much for a 9” pan. Save the leftovers! I’ve got a great use for it down the screen.)

2)   Bake at 350 till the filling puffs up, and barely jiggles at the center, about 35 minutes.

3)   Top with Maple Chipotle Nuts, then bake another 10 minutes or so until toasty, and you just can’t handle the aroma-torture any longer.

4)   Let cool on a wire rack till set, 2 hours or so.

Next time I make this pie, I plan to kick up the spice by putting a little chipotle powder into the filling.

Acorn Squash Pumpkin Pie

So, you may be wondering where the acorn squash comes in. I’ve had this beautiful Carnival acorn squash on my table as a fall decoration for a few weeks. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

But, when I made the piecrust, I realized I didn’t have any pie weights (because they would get used less often than my children ask for a bath). So, I improvised. I used a foil-lined pie tin with half an acorn squash to weigh down the crust and roast it at the same time. I put the other half face down in another pie pan, and essentially killed two birds with one stone.

But wait, there’s more! Once the acorn squash starts to caramelize, and is tender enough for a fork to pierce easily, flip it over and pour the rest of the pumpkin pie filling in the center. Bake another 10-20 minutes until the filling is set. This would be great in a butternut, or any other squash you like to prepare on the sweeter side.

Back to the Blues:

Maybe I need to take this syncopation thing more seriously. One way of making an unexpected deviation in music is with a rest where a stress is expected. Slowing my tempo makes sense, but seems impossible. Family life means trying to synchronize the rhythms of four people into one composed day, every day. Of course I can stop doing the extras I love (like writing, baking, little things that help me maintain sanity), but I can’t not participate in my family’s song. How do you do it all, or stop trying to do it all?

In jazz, some songs use a call-response format. The lead singer will sing an improvised line or two, and the chorus responds with a refrain. As the lead singer in this scenario calling to you, the chorus, what do you do when you find yourself singing the blues?


Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Culinary Travels, New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Techniques

Marinated Green Bean & Carrot Salad

I love olives, all of them. Kalamata, black, green with piminto hearts. I love pickles, pepperoncini, marinated artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, fresh pickled beets…you get the picture. Anything with a nice, vinegary tang makes me happy. My husband still tells the story, in a slightly horrified voice, of the first time he saw me eat Kalamata olives at 7 a.m. I have nothing to say for myself. This is perfectly normal behavior. Isn’t it?

My Aunt Joann used to make this wonderful thing called Cumin Carrots. It’s simply steamed-till-tender carrots marinated in a fresh, zippy vinaigrette with a healthy overdose of garlic. I often make it in the middle of winter when I’m missing summer veggies. Lemon juice and vinegar go a long way towards brightening my rainy days and my carrots.

All summer long I’ve had this rather explicable urge to pickle fresh green beans. When a lovely bag of beans arrived on my doorstep in my CSA box, I was ready to set off on my latest pickling adventure. For some reason, my Aunt Joann’s Cumin Carrots came to mind. I decided to adapt her recipe by using green beans, cilantro instead of parsley… 

and some fresh jalapenos for a little kick (hi-ya!) It worked beautifully!

Do you see the lion's tear?

Now that I know green beans and carrots are interchangeable in this recipe, I’m tempted to try cauliflower. A little red bell pepper would be good too. Ooh, asparagus! The possibilities are endless!

Marinated Green Bean & Carrot Salad  


1 lb fresh green beans trimmed, halved, and steamed
½ lb carrots sliced ¼” diagonally and steamed
9 small cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
¼ cup white vinegar
2 ½ teaspoons salt
2 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1-2 jalapenos, sliced (optional)
½ bunch fresh chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley, or 1 Tablespoon dried


1)   Steam trimmed green beans in the microwave. Put a little water in the bottom of a bowl and cover with a paper towel. Microwave for 2-3 minutes until tender-crisp, stirring after every minute to ensure even cooking. (Remember, they keep cooking after you take them out of the microwave. Let them sit for a few minutes and then check doneness before cooking them longer.)

2)   Do the same with the sliced carrots, but cook only 1-2 minutes.

3)   Whisk together dressing. Stir in cooled veggies and spoon mixture into a jar or other non-reactive lidded container (glass is best). Refrigerate 3-4 hours before serving, better overnight.

This lasts at least a week in the fridge (unless I’m around). It’s perfect for Greek toga parties, potlucks, or as a midmorning snack straight from the jar.


Filed under New Recipes, Obsessed with Produce, Parties, Holidays, and Holiday Parties, Uncategorized

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

Before You Make Instant Ramen Gnocchi Parisienne…

Despite my epic failure a few weeks ago attempting homemade ramen, aka alkaline noodles, I still wanted to try making instant ramen gnocchi found in the maiden voyage of “Lucky Peach.” (See my notes on homemade ramen and Arzak eggs here.) This recipe is the equivalent of a triple dog dare. I mean, how could it taste even remotely good? And yet, that’s exactly what is promised-indistinguishably good gnocchi parisienne.

Should I have attempted this feat after a proper night’s sleep? Absolutely. As a result, I spent all Sunday afternoon making mistake after mistake, probably four hours total. (Yes, I stopped to take pictures, but I did that between steps.)

Most of my mistakes had to do with bad equipment decisions, stemming in part from my late night Glee induced haze, and partly from poor directions. I will give you my notes so you can make this dish for yourself (in much more reasonable time, certainly not half a day). And yes, you should make it, at least once. The transformation from this:

to this

is stunning.

Here are my suggestions on how to save time, batter, and sanity while making this recipe:

1)   ‘Bring 2 cups of milk to a boil and then immediately remove from heat.’

This direction sounds quick and easy, and yet it took those little bubbles 45 minutes to skim the surface. I set the heat at medium to avoid scalding. Perhaps medium is too conservative? The recipe doesn’t specify heat level.

My suggestions: One: Before pouring the milk into a saucepan, microwave it in a shallow bowl for 2 minutes, stirring at least once halfway through. Liquids boil faster when starting at a higher temperature. Why I haven’t tried my own advice yet is beyond me. Two: don’t use a 2 qt saucepan. Use a 10” or 12” skillet. The large surface area encourages faster boiling.

2)   ‘Steep two packages of instant ramen (sans flavor packets) in the hot milk for a minute, noodles should still be firm.’

It made sense to just add the noodles to the saucepan for steepage, but the noodles don’t fit well in a 2 qt saucepan. I then tried a 2 qt casserole dish, which was wider, but only slightly better.

Revision: If you don’t use a skillet, pour hot milk into a long, shallow pan that can accommodate submerging both packages of noodles at the same time.

3)   ‘Strain noodles and put them into a blender with 1 cup reserved milk. Blend for half a minute.’

(Because it took so long to boil, much of the milk evaporated. I had to add an extra ¼ cup to make a full cup.) I have an excellent KitchenAid blender capable of crushing ice, but it completely choked on the dough, even after adding another 3 Tablespoons of milk!

Revision: Unless you have a Vitamix, do not use a blender. A food processor fitted with a standard blade works well.

I never thought I would see ramen noodles in my blender.

4)   ‘Add 4 egg yolks and blend till the dough has the consistency of “loose toothpaste.” You might need to add 1 Tablespoon of milk if the mixture is “dry.”

Is “loose toothpaste” a patisserie term I’m just not familiar with? I had no idea how to apply this description to dough. I added another tablespoon of milk to make the dough “looser.” (After the previous 3 added in a vain attempt to get my blender blades moving.)

Texture note-I thought the finished gnocchi were “creamy” in the middle, in fantastic contrast to the butter browned crispy sides. My husband, however, found it “smooth” and “custard-like,” and therefore didn’t like it because custard makes him gag. Although he did say it improved (firmed up) once it cooled. My 8 year old didn’t like it because it tasted “doughy.” My three year old liked it, but then she likes most things. So depending on your texture preferences, you may want to stick with, ‘no more than one extra tablespoon of milk.’

5)   ‘Transfer batter to a pastry bag with ½” wide tip or sturdy plastic bag with ½” corner snipped from the end. Refrigerate the dough for the time it takes to bring a large pot of water to boil.’

(Once I had a “dough,” I had to taste it. It was decidedly pasty, and only slightly better than plain cooked ramen noodles.) I spoon fed the dough into my pastry bag, thinking the tip was big enough, and of course it wasn’t. Instead of fat, happy gnocchi dropping into the gently simmering pot, I had fat little squirts of toothpaste. I transferred the batter to a ziploc with the corner cut out, and it worked perfectly.

Suggestion: Don’t mess with a pastry bag unless you are a piping expert.

6)   ‘Work in batches, piping dough directly into simmering water. As they rise to the surface, remove them to a greased plate. You can cool and store them as long as overnight before finishing.’

As I wrestled with the gnocci, I was also reducing stock and thought it would be cool to cook the gnocchi in that instead of water. I still like the idea, but the stock had reduced so much that I had to start a big pot of boiling water just to finish.

Revision: Start a big pot of boiling water when you are ready to cook. Use your biggest pot and a generous amount of water so you don’t have to wait for it to re-boil if you need to add more.

7)   ‘Before serving, brown gnocchi in 2 Tbsp butter. Finish with another Tbsp butter and fresh lemon juice. Garnish with grated Parmesan and fresh herbs.’

I debated on making a different sauce. I had visions of a roasted butternut squash based sauce, but I’m glad I didn’t. The simple flavors were perfect. I used a little fresh basil from my garden, and about a tablespoon of lemon juice. (The recipe tells you to finish with lemon juice, but doesn’t say how much.)

This meal would’ve been truly magical, if I hadn’t known (and done) all the work involved in the transformation. The good news is, I’m positive if I make it again, it won’t be such an ordeal. Hopefully these notes from the trenches help (and don’t scare you off.) I’m almost tempted to make it again just to see how much time, dishwashing, and dough I would save. Almost.


Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Ingredients, Techniques