Sunday, April 17, 2016

Baked Nopal Cactus Fries with Avocado Dipping Sauce

Baked Nopal Cactus Fries with Avocado Dipping Sauce
by Victoria Challancin

Ok.  I gave in.  I caved.  I capitulated.  My heart, which knows better than my head, thought these would be better fried than baked, but in the end, I opted for the healthy version.  Yep, I baked them.  And were they ever good!  Good, of course, if you like the taste of nopal cactus, and I certainly do.

I realize that many of my readers will neither have access to cactus paddles, called pencas, in Spanish.  Others won't have the interest because they perhaps sound a bit strange.  But trust me on this one...these baked beauties just shine.  The taste, tart and clean, comes through just fine in the baked version as well.

It seems that Mexico has always appreciated the nopal cactus (one of many in the Opuntia ficusindinca species of Cactus family).  It has figured into its cuisine since recorded history and, of course, before that.  You might know it as the main component of nopalitos, a common Mexican salad.  It even appears on the Mexican flag, so great is its importance.  Why, you ask?  One obvious reason is that it grows wild over much of the republic and it is easy to cultivate as well.  A popular food source, cooked or raw, nopal has gotten a great deal of attention in recent years due to its health benefits and nutritional value.  Both the green pads, which I used here, and the cactus fruit are popular throughout all of Mexico--and were, even before people understood their nutritive value.

Health Benefits of Nopal Cactus
  • Used as a treatment for type 2 diabetes
  • Helps fight viral infections
  • Is antiflammatory
  • Excellent for treating colitis, ulcers, diarrhea, and alcohol hangovers
  • Good for blood pressure
  • Helps lower cholesterol
  • Good source of essential micronutrients such as vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium
  • Rich in anti-oxidants
  • High in Calcium
  • Low in calories
  • Rich in dietary fiber
  • Has potential role in weight control as 88% of their weight is from water, which is calorie-free and helps you feel full

Recipe:  Baked Nopal Cactus Fries with Avocado Dipping Sauce
(Recipe inspired by changed a good bit, so do check out the original)

4 nopal cactus pads (thorns removed), cut into French Fry strips, approximately 4 inches x ½-inch
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 egg whites, lightly whisked
½ teaspoon Italian seasoning herbs--or 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Grated zest of one lime
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Avocado Dipping Sauce
1 ripe avocado
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 small garlic clove, pressed
1 spring onion, finely minced
juice from ½ lime or to taste
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro or 1 teaspoon dill, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Grease a cookie sheet with cooking oil spray, set aside.
In a large bowl combine panko, herbs or cumin, lime zest, and cayenne pepper. Place egg whites in a separate small bowl.  In a third bowl mix flour, salt and pepper.

Dip cactus strips into the egg whites and then coat them with the flour mixture.

Return cactus strips to the egg whites (or cashew cream) and then coat them with the panko bread crumbs.

Place on prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, turning halfway through.
In the meantime prepare the sauce. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve immediately.

Similar Recipes from Earlier Posts:
In this earlier post on Avocado Fries with Cilantro-Lime Dipping Sauce, I debated the virtues of frying... and ended up frying.

And in this one I tried these Zucchini Sticks with Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli I shared a bit of my Southern heritage...trying these both fried and baked.

Parting Shot:  Buddha at Night with Flower

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende,

Friday, March 25, 2016

Tomatillo Jam and Morning Glory Muffins--Perfect for Easter Brunch!

Tomatillo Jam with a hint of citrus

Tomatillo Jam and Morning Glory Muffins--Perfect for Easter Brunch!
by Victoria Challancin

One of my good friends owns a very classy boutique hotel here in San Miguel that serves the most delicious tomatillo jam.  Because I know it to be her late mother's recipe and a personal treasure, I would never ask for the recipe.  Of course, that doesn't stop me from swooning over it and dreaming. In a recent class I decided to try make some version of this delicious treat, secretly knowing it would enhance my PBJ indulgences--and that my Mexican cooks would be dazzled.  I looked about and came up with a lovely version by Karen Hursh Graber of Mexico Connect.  I paired it with a family favorite from the King Arthur Flour Company,  Morning Glory Muffins,  which are so brimming with all things healthy that even my husband eats them.

But before I give you the recipes, let me repost a few notes on tomatillos from an earlier post of mine. For ideas on how to use them, see the original post here.

A Few Notes on Tomatillos
Let's blame it on the Spanish Conquistadors, shall we?  Blame them for exactly what this time, you ask?  That misnaming a variety of Aztec-based words that they just might not have understood at the time.  In Nahuatl, that wonderful agglutinated language of the ancient Aztecs, the word tomatl simply referred to any plum fruit with xitomatl referring to regular red tomatoes and miltomatl referring to tomatillos.  The Spanish, delighted with their new gastronomic finds, simply returned home with the term tomates, which is what they cal red tomatoes in Spain today and with tomatillo, or "little Tomato" to refer to tomatillos, the red tomato's little green cousins, or kissing cousins, as we like to say in the South, as they are only very distant relatives.

What exactly are tomatillos?  Like tomatoes themselves, they belong to the larger family of Solanaceae, or Nightshades, along with potatoes, eggplants, tobacco, mandrake, belladonna (are you seeing a connection with the "Deadly Nightshade" moniker yet?), chiles, and petunias, to name a few.  Breaking the family down a bit more, you find the genus "physalis" which includes gooseberries, ground cherries and tomatillos, all part of the kissing cousins of the Paper Lantern group, called this because some of them have papery cellulose husks which must be removed before eating.

Here in Mexico the names become even more confused.  Unlike the Spanish, Mexicans refer to their own red tomatoes as jitomates and tomatillos as tomates verdes (i.e. green tomatoes), or more commonly just tomates.  In all my years of teaching Mexican cooks, well over a thousand of them, I have never heard them call this fruit "tomatillos," though they certainly know the word; they always just say "tomates."

While typically found green in the markets, still nestled in their paper husks, other varieties also exist.  My favorite are the walnut-sized purple ones, which are slightly sweeter, and the very tiny green tomates de la milpa, or "tomatillos of the corn field," which are about the size of a blueberry.  When shopping for them, choose firm tomatillos that fill out the husk.  Remove the paper husk and scrub to remove the natural sticky substance on the surface of the fruit before using.

Nutritionally speaking, the tomatillo is a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper, as well as being rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber as well.

Tangy, bright, tart, the tomatillo is a perfect fruit to add a bit of zing to any number of dishes.  The interior of the tomatillo is highly seeded, yet the seeds are not removed as they often are with tomatoes; in fact, you probably can't remove them due to the way they are structured. Their tart lemony flavors lends itself beautiful to other Mexican ingredients such as avocado, and they are a perfect addition to a salad in their raw form.  And of course, let us not forget this heavenly tomatillo jam!
A healthy Morning Glory Muffin with a puddle of tomatillo jam

Recipe:  Tomatillo Jam
Mexican Tomatillo Jam
(Recipe by Karen Hursh Graber)
Mermelada de Tomate Verde
Makes about a half pint

1 pound tomatillos, husked, washed and chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup lime juice
Zest of 1lime
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch of salt

Place all ingredients in a large pot, stir, bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer until thickened to a loose jam.  It will thicken more as it cools.  Ladle into a sterilized half-pint jar, cover and allow to cool.  Refrigerate for up to 6 months.

The muffins alone 
Cook's Notes:  These easy-to-make muffins (the grating of the apple and carrot are the most difficult part--hardly difficult at all!) are absolutely delicious.  I am always pleased that recipe makes so many, then surprised when they don't last a nanosecond in our house!  These muffins hardly need either butter or jam (I use both), but a smear of cream cheese is just wonderful.

Recipe:  Morning Glory Muffins
Makes 12 muffins (I always get more than this)

1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) raisins
2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) whole wheat flour, traditional or white whole wheat
1 cup (7 1/2 ounces brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups (7 ounces) carrots, peeled and grated (I don't bother to peel them)
1 large tart apple, peeled, cored, and grated
1/2 cup (2 ounces) sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup (2 ounces) chopped walnuts (or other nut of choice)
1/3 cup (1 1/2 ounces) sunflower seeds or wheat germ, optional (don't leave out the seeds!)
3 large eggs
2/3 cup (4 5/8 ounces) vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup (2 ounces) orange juice

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Lightly grease a 12-cup muffin tin, or line it with papers and spray the insides of the papers.

To make the muffins:  In a small bowl, cover the raisins with hot water, and set them aside to soak and plump while you assemble the rest of the recipe.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, spices, and salt.  Stir in the carrots, apple, coconut, nuts, and sunflower seeds or wheat germ, if using.  

In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla, and orange juice.  Add to the flour mixture, and stir until evenly moistened.  

Drain the raisins and stir them in.  Dived the batter among the wells of the prepared pan (they will be full almost to the top)

Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, until nicely domed and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes in the pan on a rack, then turn out of pan to finish cooling.

Morning Glory Muffin with Tomatillo Jam (on my mothers Wedgwood)

The tomatillo jam...with a Moroccan spoon

Happy Easter!

Parting Shot:  Detail from a Mexican Tree of Life

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

Friday, March 11, 2016

Za'atar-Roasted Chicken with Vegetables and a Few Mexican Market Finds

Za'atar-Roasted Chicken with Vegetables and a Few Mexican Market Finds
by Victoria Challancin

It is not so much that I have been remiss as it is that I have been insanely busy with food events and cooking classes.  Finally, I can start to share some of what I have been storing up for you, my patient readers.

Note:  To read more about Za'atar and see my recipe for making this perky spice blend, see my post on Za'atar:  A Taste of the Middle East.

I wanted to offer a new flavor palate to my Mexican cooks in my class this week, so I chose what I hoped would be an interesting blend of fairly strong flavors, most new to the cooks.  This easy recipe is so simple to make and the flavor yield is tremendous.  Broccoli (or green beans), onion,  green olives and orange slices are tossed with a bit of olive oil and white wine, spread on a cooking sheet and topped with za'atar-dusted chicken strips before roasting.  It couldn't be easier, or more delicious. The orange theme continues by using zest and juice, coupled with chicken broth, to prepare whole wheat couscous on which to serve the dish.  I love not only the ease of preparation, but the flavor punch as well.

The tray of vegetables before cooking and below with the raw chicken pieces

The final dish with a bit of couscous peaking through

Cook's Notes:  The original recipe called for green beans, which I change for broccoli.  It also called for one orange and I used two, which gave the couscous a fantastic flavor.  I was thrilled to find whole wheat couscous for the first time here in San Miguel as well.  A treat.  As for the chicken tenders, I simply cut two boneless breasts into strips and cooked the entire tray an extra few minutes.

Za’atar-Roasted Chicken & Vegetables with Orange-Scented Whole Wheat Couscous

(Recipe from EatingWell January/February 2016)

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

1 medium navel orange
1 pound trimmed green beans or broccoli florets
1 medium red onion, halved and sliced
1/2 cup Kalamata or Castelveltrano olives
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper, divided
1 pound chicken tenders or chicken breasts cut into strips
1 tablespoon za’atar (from Luna de Queso—ask for it)
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2/3 cup whole-wheat couscous

Position rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 450 degrees F.  Coat a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.

Grate 2 teaspoons zest from orange.  Slice 1/2 inch off the ends and squeeze juice into a medium saucepan; add the zest.  Set aside.

Cut the rest of the orange in half, then cut into 1/4-inch slices.  Toss in a large bowl with green beans or broccoli florets, onion, olives, oil, wine, salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.  Spread the mixture in an even layer on the prepared pan.  Toss chicken with za'atar in the bowl, then place on top of the green bean or broccoli mixture.

Roast on the bottom rack until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is no longer pink in the middle, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile add broth and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper to the saucepan.  Bring to a boil.  Sitr in couscous.  Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 5 minutes.  Fluff with a fork.  Serve with the chicken and vegetables.

Things I found in the Markets this week:
Works of art, painted by nature...quail eggs for sale at less than 6 cents each

Cacao--I couldn't help but snap a photo as I passed this in a small chocolate store

Tiny globe zucchini, some too small to stuff!

Huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche), the prized corn smut, or corn "truffle" as we like to call it here in Mexico, used to be available only from individual sellers.  Now you can find it in grocery stores and small greengrocer shops as well.  Of course, I still prefer to support the small farmer and housewife hawking her wares.

Fresh turmeric root

We used to find only plum or round tomatoes.  Just look at what our organic markets are offering...all babies...all appealing.

One perfect red jalapeño.  Encorchado, or "corked," as my Mexican friends prefer.  I usually gravitate toward serrano chiles, but I couldn't resist these.  So perfect.

Although Mexico is known for its exotic mushrooms, here in the Bajio, where I live, only common ones are usually available (button, crimini, portobello, and oyster).  Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon these pink oyster mushrooms in a local organic shop!  Gorgeous!

Can you tell I was enchanted?

Still enamored. Just love the look of them!

Parting Shot:  Fried Pork Skins
You don't always see such huge pieces of chicharron, or fried pork skins on offer.  Of course I asked this lovely young man if I could snap a photos.  He not only agreed to it, he insisted I try a bite.  What can I say?  You might imagine that you wouldn't like this, but oh my...perfection.  Not a drop of grease.  Just concentrated flavor...Heaven.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Resserved.

Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
(and Travel)
San Miguel de Allende, México