Cactus Salad. Yep, Cactus.

July 5, 2011

How was your Fourth of July weekend?  Mine was quite nice, thank you very much for asking.  I got some stuff done around the house, saw a movie at the $3 theater in my neighborhood (we saw Fast Five, and I’m glad I only paid $3 for it), and yesterday, went to a lively and fun BBQ at my friend Jen’s house.  Since I don’t like coming to events empty-handed, I told Jen I’d bring along a salad, and after some thinking, I knew exactly what salad I wanted to bring.

A few months ago, my aunt Annie made a delicious 3-ingredient salad (which you can read about here).  It had onion, cilantro, and the star of the dish, cactus.  Yep, cactus.  It was the first time I’d ever eaten cactus, and it was delicious.  I’ve been wanting to make the salad ever since, and Jen’s BBQ gave me the perfect opportunity.  If you know me at all, you know that I can’t make a recipe without tweaking it here and there and making it my own, and that was the case yesterday as well.  So this is no longer a 3-ingredient dish.  It’s a 7-ingredient dish.  It’s still easy-peasy, and the guests at Jen’s BBQ confirmed that it’s a crowd-pleaser (and conversation-starter).

So what do you need to make my cactus salad?  For starters, cactus:

Not all cactuses (cacti?) are edible.  The edible kind are called nopal, and they’re native to Mexico, where they’ve been eaten by the indigenous people for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.  In fact, in the 14th century, the Aztec people were told by one of their gods to build a new city on an island in a lake, and they would know which island, because when they went there, they would see an eagle, perched on a nopal, eating a snake.  The Aztecs found the eagle, and built their city, which grew and eventually became Mexico City, and the story of the eagle, snake, and nopal is immortalized on the Mexican flag.

Nopalitos, or “little Nopals” are the tender cactus pads of the Nopal cactus.  I’ve seen them whole and raw in the produce section at Mexican supermarkets in Los Angeles, but that seems like such a hassle, because you have to trim the thorns off them, and that seems like an engraved invitation for me to get 10,000 puncture wounds in my hands.  I think I’ve also seen them trimmed up, thorn-free and raw in the produce section, too, which would be a big help, but you know what’s even easier?  The jarred version I ended up buying.

The 30-ounce jar of  Dona Maria-brand nopalitos pictured above cost me $2.99 at Superior Grocers.  The nopalitos have been trimmed, cooked, and pickled, and for this recipe, I used two jars, which I drained in my colander, and rinsed under cold water, to remove the excess vinegar and salt.  Then, they went into my bowl:

Some people say that nopalitos taste similar to okra, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve had okra (it was years and years ago), so I can’t confirm or deny that.  I think they taste (and look) quite like green beans.  They’re very limp and a little on the slimy side, but then again, they’ve been pickled.  Nopalitos are a good source of fiber and vitamins A, C, and K.  They’ve been shown to reduce the glucose in diabetics’ blood, so you can find nopal-based supplements and pills.  My jar of nopalitos says that a serving only has 5 calories, but a serving is only 2 tablespoons, and I suspect the serving size is so small because the pickling process adds so much salt – those 2 tablespoons have 560mg of sodium, or 23% of your recommended daily intake, which is precisely why I drained and rinsed them for the salad – hopefully I washed some of that sodium away.

Back to the salad.  Ingredients 2 through 5 are all vegetables, which I uniformly diced pretty small, so they’d be smaller than the nopalitos:

From left to right, I used:

  • 1/2 of a white onion.  I would’ve preferred to use red onion, because of the color, but I had a white onion in my fridge that I wanted to use up.
  • Tomatoes.  I used 3 small Roma tomatoes and 1 regular tomato, because that’s what I had lying around.  I scooped out the seeds and core of all of them them before dicing, to limit the amount of liquid in the salad.
  • 1 cucumber, deseeded and diced.
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced.

They all went into the bowl.  Then, this guy:

A jalapeno pepper!  I thought it’d be nice to add a little heat to the salad.  You can leave it out if you want to – it’s no big deal.  Jalapenos (and all other hot peppers) hold a majority of their heat in the ribs and seeds, so be sure to remove them before chopping it up (and don’t touch your eyes!).  I chopped it up as finely as I possibly could, because I didn’t want anyone getting a big bite of jalapeno:

I went ahead and minced the entire jalapeno.  Why not?

The 7th and final ingredient?  A handful of cilantro:

Then I tossed it all together (for a long time, to make sure that jalapeno got distributed everywhere evenly), and here’s the end result:

Because of the lingering brine from the nopalito jars, there’s no need for a dressing of any kind, which makes this salad even easier!   I did, however, make it a few hours before heading to the BBQ, so it could all marinate together for a while.  And I did serve myself a little sample, because I couldn’t wait until the BBQ to give it a try:

Mmm-mmm!  It was flavorful, and the mix of tender napolitos with crisp fresh vegetables provided a nice variety of textures.  And for anyone weary of the jalapeno, it wasn’t very hot, either – just a nice hint of heat.

Hopefully you’ll give nopalitos a try – this salad is an easy way to introduce a new food to your family and friends!  And if you liked this recipe, check out some my other recent lettuce-less salad ideas:

One more fun fact about the nopal cactus – it’s also called a prickly pear cactus, and the prickly pear fruit (sometimes called cactus pear) comes from the same plant.  I tried prickly pear for the first time last fall, and they’re dangerous (read about them here)!  It’s pretty cool that one plant provides both a vegetable and a fruit, and I’m glad that I’ve tried both products.

Keep it up, David!


Annie and Vasquez

April 3, 2011

Two parts in today’s post.

Part 1: Annie. Last night, I headed out to my aunt and uncle’s place in Glendora, a eastern suburb of Los Angeles, about 45 minutes from me.  We were going to go see Paula Poundstone perform at a local college, but first, my aunt Annie made a delicious dinner.  So, being a good blogger, I photographed it, which excited Annie, because she really wants to be in this blog, which is a fact she mentioned only about  14 times over the course of the evening.  OK, Annie, I hear ya, loud and clear! Honestly, though, I would have put it in the blog anyway, because she was very thoughtful in her cooking in regards to the way I’m eating, and plus, she used an ingredient I’ve never tried before!

That new-to-me ingredient is cactus.  Yep, cactus!  I’ve seen fresh cactus in the produce section of some Mexican supermarkets in Los Angeles, but I’ve never bought it, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it before.  So Annie’s cactus salad definitely marked a first in my life.  Here it is:

It has three ingredients – how easy is that?  There’s diced Maui onion, cilantro, and the star of the dish, the cactus.  Annie’s cactus came from a jar, where it’s pickled in vinegar.  They’re called nopalitos, and they’re cut-up strips of the pads from a prickly pear cactus.  I don’t know what brand Annie used, but here’s a random image that I pulled off the interweb:

They look like green beans, but they’re not.  Annie dumped the contents into a colander, draining the brine, and then rinsed them a little bit, so wash some of the excess vinegar taste away, then added the onion and cilantro, and voila! A finished salad.  It was delicious, and I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for cactus at the store – apparently it’s hard to miss in the Mexican food aisle.

Annie’s main course last night was turkey chili, which had at least five kinds of beans, and was topped with a little nonfat Greek Yogurt, cilantro, and a rectangle of homemade corn bread:

Dessert was strawberry shortcake:

While Annie tossed the strawberries in sugar, to pull out their juices, she set aside some of the strawberries for me before doing that, so my serving had no added sugar.  Annie also made the biscuits, and I intended to only eat half of it, but ended up nibbling away at the other half during our post-dinner chit-chat until it was all gone.  Oh well.  It’s just a biscuit.

The whole meal was very tasty and filling, so thank you, Annie – nicely done!

Then we were off to Citrus College, and we all had a great time at Paula Poundstone’s show.  I’ve seen her perform live once before, about 10 or 11 years ago, and she was great then, and she was great last night.  She interacts a lot with the audience, which makes each show pretty unique, and the way she weaves her material in and out of the conversations she has with audience members is pretty ingenious.

We got to meet Paula after the show, briefly, and she signed my program.  See?

I’ll add that to my celebrity autograph collection, which, up until this point, consisted solely of autographs from stars of the NBC soap opera Passions, which I watched religiously for 4 or 5 years, and loved.  So Paula’s John Hancock is in very good company.

I’m tempted to write about 8 more paragraphs on Passions but I’ll save that for another time.

Part 2: Vasquez. Regular blog readers know that I’ve been having a tough time with Sundays lately.  Two Sundays ago, I ate way too much at a party, and last Sunday, I had a cereal binge in the comfort of my own home.  Today, though, I had a plan of attack to get through my Sunday without getting off program – and that plan was: I gotta keep myself busy.

My friend Judie called the other day and asked if I would help her out at the garage sale she was having this morning, so I said yes, partly because I haven’t seen her in a while, and partly because it would take up the entire morning, and therefore be a big help towards the completion of a busy, binge-free day.  I was in my car by 7:30am, and stayed up at Judie’s until 11:30 or so, before heading back into town.

I say ‘back into town’ because Judie lives in Acton, which is about 45 minutes in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles, and it’s beautiful there.  My original plan was to leave Judie’s and head straight to the gym, but as I was pulling away from Judie’s place, I made the impromptu executive decision to go hiking instead.  Judie lives minutes away from Vasquez Rocks, a county park that is drop dead gorgeous, and I’ve never hiked it.

I’ve blogged before about Vasquez Rocks, because Judie and I stopped by and took a few pictures there back in November, so check it out – there’s also some great pictures of Judie’s animals (and she has a lot).

Vasquez Rocks is full of cool rock formations, and movie studios have been heading there for literally 100 years (since the birth of cinema) to use it as a filming location.  In addition to countless Westerns, Vasquez Rocks has been used as various other planets on the original Star Trek series, and the town of Bedrock in the 1994 live-action The Flintstones was built there, too.  Today, there were a lot of people clamoring all over the rocks near the parking lots, but once I ventured further in, it was peaceful and quiet, and I had a good 80-minute hike.  It was pretty easy, as hikes go – no huge hills or anything – and I want to come back, just for the scenery.  I didn’t go crazy with my camera, but I did snap a few pics:

Now it’s time to pay some bills, make some dinner, do some cleaning of myvplace, and a little later, I’m hanging out with a friend.  It’s a few minutes before 6pm right now, But I’m going to go ahead and declare than my Sunday has been binge-free and healthy.

Keep it up, David!