Saturday, February 23, 2013

Roasted cactus salsa

Did you guys know that cactus is insanely delicious?!? And not just "yea, this stuff is edible", but like "holy cow this tastes amazing!"

I first had cactus in Phoenix last month, when the boy and I ordered a side of cactus fries with prickly pair dipping sauce (aka: sliced cactus that was lightly battered and flash fried). I had absolutely no idea what to expect, since cactus really isn't a common part of Assyrian cooking. But when else would we ever encounter cactus fries-- so we just had to order them. And I'm sure glad we did- because we quickly scarfed down the order, and I could have easily eaten about another 20 of them. It's hard to describe the flavor exactly, but its similar-ish to a fried green tomato. The cactus was tart. Bright. Slightly lemony. Tender. And melt-in-your-mouth delicious!

Fast forward a few weeks later, when the boy and I randomly pop into a Mexican market to buy some fruit. And guess what I see?

Prickly pair cactus pad, otherwise known in Spanish as nopales

Using my handy-dandy smart phone, I quickly Googled some recipes and found one for roasted cactus salsa. Something about the tart cactus contrasted with roasted veggies, along with lime, cilantro, and corn really called out to me. And I'm glad it did, because it was soooo good, and unlike any salsa I'd had. To be honest, I preferred the salsa as a "topping salsa" (aka: topping my tacos with it) instead of a "dipping salsa" (aka: dipping tortilla chips in it). I can't really explain why- I just felt it worked better in enhancing my taco experience than it did as a stand-alone with chips.

Make this and nobody will guess your secret ingredient

So what started off as a trip to buy some fruit turned into us shopping for an entire Mexican-inspired meal, complete with marinated pork for tacos, corn tortillas for home-made fried shells, black beans, and queso fresco. Oh, and delicious cactus salsa.

Yours in discovering a new prickly love,
Jacqueline

Roasted cactus (nopales) salsa, from Simply Recipes
Makes 2 cups salsa

This recipe is designed for the whole paddles, but you may be able to make it with bagged cut cactus for nopalitos if that's all that is available in the market. Just arrange them close together on the roasting pan while you roast the vegetables so they don't dry out.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 nopales cactus paddles, spikes removed
2 green tomatoes, cored and cut in half (I used Roma tomatoes as I couldn't find any green ones in the market)
1/2 large, white onion, peeled and cut into 4 chunks
2 jalapeños, red or green, more or less to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup frozen corn (If using freshly cooked or grilled corn from the cob, skip the roasting in step 2 and just add to the salsa in the last step)
1 cup cilantro, stems removed
1 garlic clove, peeled
Juice from 1/2 a lime, about 1 Tbsp
2 hot chili peppers, stems removed, more or less to taste, optional
2 Tablespoons tequila, optional
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, optional
Salt to taste

Directions 
  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Working with a large sharp knife with a fairly straight edge, scrape off any remaining prickles or nubs on the cactus paddles. Cut the paddles crosswise into 1-inch thick strips. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil. Place cactus, green tomatoes, white onion and jalapeños on the baking sheet in preheated oven for 12 minutes. The cactus should still be slightly crisp when pierced with a fork. (Note: I removed the cactus and tomatoes after ~12 min, and left the onion and jalapeños to roast for another 10 - 15 minutes [or more] to enhance the roasted flavor.)
  2. Heat a cast iron or stick-free skillet with 1 teaspoon olive oil over medium heat on the stove top. When the pan is heated, add frozen corn and spread out in an even layer. Do not stir the corn. Allow it to roast in the hot pan for about 2 to 3 minutes. The corn should become browned and roasted. You can check by gently flipping a few pieces with the corner of a spatula. When corn is browned, stir and roast for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Place corn in a small bowl and set aside.
  3. Place the oven-roasted vegetables in a food processor with the cilantro, garlic, lime juice, tequila, oregano and salt. Puree until nearly smooth, about 30 seconds. Be careful when you remove the lid on the food processor—the heat released from the peppers will zoom up your nose and down your throat, so don’t stand directly over the open food processor. Note: if your jalapeños are on the spicier side, as mine were this time, reserve the seeds. After blending the salsa give it a taste- if you want more heat then go ahead and add the seeds. If not, be happy you removed the seeds first. Remember- it's always easier to add heat to a dish than remove it!
  4. Pour the salsa into a serving dish. Stir the roasted corn into the finished salsa. Allow to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Serve on top of tacos or with tortilla chips.

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