Nopales and Sweet Pepper Tacos, with Tortilla Chips on the side

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A few days ago I received a message from my friend Lorena in Mexico City. Roughly translated, it said “I have a new obsession, nopales tacos with lime, salsa and salt, with a cold beer! I’ve eaten them two days in a row, and today I would like the same thing!” With this message in mind, I knew what my next blog post would be!

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What are nopales, you might ask? Before I went to Mexico last year, I had no idea either. I ate them on my first night there, after lugging my bag all the way through the metro to Politécnico station in the super far north of Mexico City, then onto a regular bus, and then tiny gas spewing pesero (the even smaller buses private buses that serve areas regular buses don’t go) towards the home of my couchsurfing host, Olivia. After meeting her roommates and putting my stuff down, we went to the street to eat tacos, my first in Mexico (did I mention Olivia had listed “tacos” as her religion on her couchsurfing profile?) They were carne asada (grilled steak), with cheese and green bits, which I later found out were nopales. Nopales are, in fact, just another word for cactus, that famous symbol of Mexico. More specifically, they’re the paddles of the Prickly Pear cactus, a nutrient-dense food. I ate them again several weeks later in a very different scenario: an organic, slightly yuppie-ish café in the trendy Condesa neighbourhood, offered as a vegetarian breakfast with panela cheese. They were good that way too, but somehow the atmosphere just wasn’t the same. No greasy tortillas, no steam pouring off the cart into the Mexican night, no kids running down the street. Obviously I can’t recreate much of that on my own, but when I saw that message from Lorena, and then saw Nopales in my local market, I just knew that tacos were in order! I made a few switches from Lorena’s original recommendation, but hopefully the final result is still close to what she so deliciously described!

Nopales and Sweet Pepper Tacos

2 medium nopales
5 small sweet peppers, grilled
4 slices of sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
salt
pepper
2 corn tortillas
1 lime

Carefully remove the spines from the cactus (the ones I bought already had them removed, though to be extra careful I used a knife to remove the small stumps at the base of each spine as well.) Chop nopales into relatively thin strips, about an inch or so long. Heat oil in a cast-iron pan, and when it’s hot, add chopped nopales (originally I was planning on grilling them, as I remember them in Mexico City, though Lorena recommended pan frying since I have no charcoal grill. I was not completely satisfied with the results, and might grill them on the gas grill next time anyway, chopping them into thin strips after grilling.) Pan fry the nopales with salt and pepper until they lose their stickiness (a bit like okra). This should not take more than 5 minutes.

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In the meantime, cut the grilled peppers into strips. Once nopales are done, remove them from grill, and pat off excess grease. Add tortillas to the still slightly greasy pan, and flip once after about a minute. Place cheese slices on top, and let melt slightly. Reheat peppers and nopales on the side of the pan.

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When the cheese has melted slightly, and the tortilla is nicely toasted, remove tortilla and place on plate. Add nopales and peppers. Squeeze lime over tacos, and add chili sauce or salsa or guacamole if you wish (I ate mine with guacamole). Even though they weren’t grilled, they still tasted quite delicious. The cheese really makes a difference, adding a nice bite, while the peppers provide some heartiness. I don’t normally like cheese on my tacos, but with these vegetarian ones, it really works. I also oven-baked tortilla chips to eat on the side with more guacamole!

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Oven-bake tortilla chips

3 corn tortillas
1 capful of vegetable oil
salt

This recipe is easy as pie (much easier really!), and much healthier than store-bought tortilla chips. They’re also super tasty, and I don’t feel like I’m losing out by eating them baked instead of fried. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stack tortillas and slice into pie-shaped wedges. Place in an oven dish, and sprinkle a capful of oil on them. You really need barely any at all. Sprinkle a few dashes of salt and place in the oven. After 5 minutes, stir the chips. Keep checking regularly until they’re done. Golden is the ideal colour, once they start turning brown, that means they’re burning! It’s ok if they’re a bit soft when you take them out. They will stiffen as they cool. Remove from oven and sprinkle with a bit more salt. Serve warm with salsa or guacamole!

Guacamole

1 large avocado
1 small lime
handful of grape tomatoes, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
salt

This is not necessarily an “authentic” guacamole recipe. I had no cilantro on hand, so by all means add that to yours if you wish. Same with onion. As for chile, I personally prefer a non-spicy guacamole. I like the lime and avocado to hit me as an antidote to the chile in everything else. This guacamole is super simple: Remove flesh from avocado and place it in a bowl. Squeeze lime onto avocado. With a fork, break the flesh down until it is somewhat smooth, with some chunks remaining. Add tomatoes, garlic and salt, and mix until incorporated. Enjoy! And here’s some food for thought while you eat: I recently met a Mexican who told me the origins of the word Guacamole. In Nahuatl (the Aztec language), “mole” means sauce (not just the chocolate kind), and “guaca” refers to  āhuacatl, the avocado. Therefore guacamole simply means avocado sauce!

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