It was one of the first big words I learned. Other people called it glue. But that’s not what it said on the bottle. On the bottle it said mucilage. So that’s what I called it.
I remember smart-assing my mother. Even giving it the French pronunciation so it rhymed with an aircraft’s body.
“Mom, have you see the mucilage?”
“Have I seen the what?”
Then I started to spend time in Mexico. And I went one better. I learned a five syllable word. Maybe my only five syllable word. Mucilaginous.
The word was hard to fit into Sunday afternoon jock talk at Dino Martini’s.
“The split end would probably have had a couple more receptions if the cornerback hadn’t been so mucilaginous.”
I learned that word when I was trying to read everything ever written about Mexican cuisine. And you can’t read about a certain Mexican vegetable, especially in those books written by those four syllable people called nutritionists, without seeing the word mucilaginous.
Mucilaginous is, I think, the reason most people don’t like the vegetable. Only they call it sludgy, funky. sticky, gooey, or, the word most often used, slimy.
It’s a shame more chefs don’t serve them. A shame more people don’t eat them. Because even though you can compare the taste to green beans or perhaps to asparagus or maybe even a little to green peppers, the taste is totally unique and, in the right cook’s hands, they’re never mucilaginous.
I’m talking about the thorny subject of nopales…or nopals…or nopalitos when they’re young or get cut into little strips. Those prickly pads or paddles from the opuntia cacti that are one of Mexico’s most popular vegetables. The paddles that are eaten raw or cooked. The paddles that are used in soups, in stews, in salads, in preserves, and, by Don Day’s Wife, to Mexicanize shepherd’s pie (which you can read about here: http://dondayinsma.com/2014/02/15/in-pursuit-of-the-perfect-shepherds-pie-mexican-style/). The paddles that, if left to bear fruit, produce something that is popular not just in Mexico. For the paddles of the opuntia cactus are where the prickly pear grows.
The opuntia cactus is native to Central Mexico and the word nopal comes from the Nahuatl word nohpalli which means pads. Though I’ve never seen nopales mentioned in any of the early literature about Mexican cuisine, Kirsten West, chef and Mexican food ingredient expert tells me that, “Yes, cactus was an important part of pre-Hispanic cuisine.”
There are more than three million hectares in Central Mexico that are dedicated to nopales. About half of the harvest goes to feed livestock. The rest is divided up between growing the pads for me (and hopefully you), growing prickly pears (or tunas as they’re called in Mexico) and growing for cochineal which is an insect that feeds on the plant and from which we extract carmine red dye.
In San Miguel, nopales are ever present in every market. Most often sold by women, most often sitting on the ground or plastic milk crates, meticulously trimming away the spines as they wait patiently to make a sale. I always presumed that the nopales they were selling were picked from the wild but I was wrong.
Denver Reyes, the chef/owner of Olivo Verde told me that, at this time of year, “Everything they sell would be cultivated. The only time that there are nopalitos, the young pads you want to eat, is in May to September, after the rainy season.”
At a recent cooking course at Olivo Verde, I learned that nopales aren’t just for eating. I learned something that Denver learned from his mother, one of San Miguel’s most respected chefs. You can not only cook nopales in a pot, you can actually use the nopales as the pot. In a technique that probably goes back to pre-Hispanic times, nopales can also be used as cooking vessels.
We paraded a few hundred meters from the restaurant to a field of cactus led by Denver until we stopped at a plant with some extra large, frisbee sized pads.
“This is an opuntia tuna-blanca”, said Denver. “They’re the ones we want. They’re the best.”
“And why?”, I asked.
“Because they taste the best. They’re the ones you always want to eat, whether it’s the nopales or the tunas (what prickly pears are called in Mexico)”, Denver replied.
“And how do you know this is a blanca?”, I asked, knowing that there are about 150 different varieties of opuntia. “They all look the same to me.”
“I guess it helps to have played in these fields since I first learned to walk”, said Denver.
My next lesson was that there’s more than one thing you shouldn’t stand down wind from. As Denver wielded his machete (he calls it his Mexican Express card) slicing the best paddles, we were told to stand back, way back. The spines are liable to fly like little darts. And they hurt even more coming out than they do going in.
Denver selected some choice pads, telling us that the rule is the smaller the better when they’re going to be eaten, the larger the better when they’re going to be used to cook inside. He slit them in half and we walked back to Olivo Verde in anticipation.
With the help of his cousin Isabel, Denver stuffed the nopales with chorizo, peppers, goat cheese and fresh nopalitos that had been purchased that morning at the market.
The next stage was a little scene from Grey’s Anatomy as Denver and Isabel took the needle and piano wire to the nopales to sew them up. Then they were placed on a mini charcoal grill, but not on the rack, right on the coals.
After about 15 minutes, off came the nopales and the juicy contents went into the tortillas that Isabel had been grilling. Juicy. Delicious. With a strong nopal taste that I presumed was doubled by having nopales inside and out.
“And how do you prevent the nopales from being slimy?”, I asked Denver.
“You just have to watch them and when they start to turn from green to blue they’re perfectly done”, he replied.
Now as you may know, Olivo Verde is an Italian restaurant and nopales have as much place in Italian cuisine as olives do in Mexican cuisine. So unfortunately, you’ll have to go elsewhere to taste the best of them.
“In my heart it’s what I want to do. I hope sometime I’ll be able to cook classic Mexican”, said Denver. “But not yet.”
There are two places in San Miguel de Allende where I like to eat nopales. One place isn’t exactly a destination but it involves a destination. For if you buy your meat at Carniceria la Nueva Aurora in Fraccionamente La Luz as I do, getting there requires going past the juice stand at the corner of Boulevard de la Conspiracion and Durazno.
Though I can go past the juice stand on the way there, it is impossible for me to go past it on my way back without buying a deep fried…yes deep fried…quesadilla. And the filling of choice is always the pork and nopalitos with a little stream of their salsa roja.
My second place to eat nopales used to just be a place for some of the town’s best tacos until I received a recommendation from Don Day reader Alexis White. Alexis told me that Don Taco Tequila‘s nopal asado belonged on my Scrumptious Things To Eat In San Miguel list. Alexis was right.
It felt a little strange going to a restaurant specifically for a vegetable. A bit like going to my local liquor store La Europea to buy salt cod. I think the last time a vegetable was my reason to visit a restaurant was when potato skins and onion rings were new to the culinary scene. And those occasions were really about the bacon bits and the batter.
One of the joys of eating at Don Taco Tequila is being served by the very delightful and coquettish Amanda. The nopal asado she brought to the table included cilantro, onion and sesame seeds all working in harmony and as Alexis White told me, there was “not a trace of slime.”
I asked Amanda what the secret was. Why was it that Don Taco Tequila‘s nopales weren’t mucilaginous (no, I didn’t really use that word) while others were and Amanda reported back from the kitchen.
“We don’t put oil on them. We just soak them in water with disinfectant and then put them on the flame of the stove. It’s the oil that causes the problem.”
Now one of the things Don Day frequently gets chided about is not telling his readers the nutritional values of the foods he writes about. And it’s true that I do spend most of my time writing about what’s good for the tongue and ignoring the rest of the body. But as nopales are so good in so many ways, healthwise, I will make an exception and leave you with this.
Nopal cactus is a good source of vitamins A and C; it’s high in fiber; and it’s low in carbohydrates. And, according to Denver Reyes from Olivo Verde, who is an expert on virtually every plant native to Mexico, “It can help get rid of a headache and is excellent for indigestion.”
Now that might even be worth suffering a little slime.
Olivo Verde is located at Colonia Aurora #5 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Noon to 8:00 pm, Wednesday through Saturday. Cooking classes are held on Tuesday by reservation only. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415 150 0239 for details.
Don Taco Tequila is located at Hernandes Macias #83 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Noon to 10:00 pm, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; Noon to Midnight, Friday and Saturday.