I had this sweet potato in the pantry that needed to be used. What could I prepare with a sweet potato? I had pork loin in the freezer. How about a stew? Garlic, onions, olive oil… I needed something green. Peppers could provide flavor and color, both red and green. At this point the dish was taking on a southwest flavor. Corn fit the cuisine and added additional color and texture. But I still needed something to balance the stew. Sweet potato, corn; two starches, what green vegetable could I add to improve balance?
In a Mexican restaurant I recently encountered Nopales (pronounced no-PAH-less). Nopal is Spanish for cactus and refers to the pads (or leaves) of the prickly pear cactus. The fruit for which this plant is named is also edible. In Spanish, the prickly pear is called the tuna. In Tex-Mex cuisine you will find nopales cooked with eggs, included in soups and stews, served with meat or as a side dish on their own. They have a light, slightly tart flavor not unlike green beans. Perfect for a pork stew with flavors from the southwest! But I had to learn how to prepare it.
Although new to me, this plant has been cultivated and eaten in Central Mexico since before the Spanish arrived. Nopal (cactus) is one of the fundamental symbols of Mexico. The Mexican flag depicts an Aztec legend that tells of an eagle devouring a snake while perched on a cactus. It is considered la planta de vida (life-giving plant) because it never seems to die. A Mexican expression to have cara de nopal (the face of a cactus) is to say that one looks like a Mexican or his indigenous ancestry is evident in his facial features.
Nopales are readily available in most grocery stores and of course in Mexican grocery stores. Look for smaller pads that are bright green and firm, not wrinkled. They are usually sold with the spines removed. Handle them carefully or use rubber gloves to trim off the spine bases with a sharp paring knife. Trim off the edges where immature spines are present and trim the stem edge off. Rinse the pad and it is ready for cooking.
The pads can be boiled, grilled or sautéed. To sauté the pads as a side dish, cut them into green bean size strips or dice them and sauté them in olive oil with diced onions and fresh garlic. Like okra, these nopalitos exude a viscous liquid that evaporates during the sauté. Season with salt and pepper, lime juice and olive oil to create a delightful accompaniment. But in my pork stew, the viscous liquid simply gets absorbed into the stew and adds to the thickening of the gravy.
In this recipe, nopales is the perfect addition to balance the stew in color, texture and flavor. The dish is also balanced nutritionally in terms of meat, starch and vegetable. This colorful one-pot meal makes a hearty dinner packed with flavor to serve on these cool autumn nights. And it all started with a sweet potato.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.