Monday, March 23, 2015

How to Clean and Cook Nopales { Video }

Cactus might look intimidating but once you learn how to clean and cook nopales, you'll never go back to buying the jarred kind.

Nopales, or cactus in English, is a household staple in many Mexican homes. It's a low carb, fat free, cholesterol free food that is high in potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A and C. A one cup serving of cooked cactus is only 23 calories and 3 of it's 5 carbohydrates are dietary fiber, giving it a glycemic load of just 2. This makes it a great choice for low carb lifestyles and a definite diabetic-friendly food.

We had it often in our home. My parents would scramble it with eggs, onions and lots of cilantro for breakfast. And on warmer days, they'd make an enselada de nopales con frijoles de la olla (nopales salad with fresh cooked beans). I'll show you that recipe next week. Today, I'm showing you how to buy, clean and cook them. They can then be eaten as is for a side dish or added to various recipes.

Walk around almost any neighborhood in San Diego county, and you're bound to find cactus growing in several yards. My grandmother used to grow it in her yard. When the mood hit her to make nopales, all she had to do was take her big knife out to her yard and slice off some cactus paddles. I think it eventually got a bit unruly and she got rid of it. Now when she wants some, she'll walk across the street where a neighbor has it growing in his front yard and has given her the OK to help herself. 

Many major supermarkets sell jars of cooked nopales in the Mexican foods aisle. Cactus from those jars tend to be slimy (easily rinsed off but can be off-putting if you're not expecting it) and sometimes, a little overcooked for my taste. I prefer my cactus to have a bit of a bite to it, al dente, if you will. Some major supermarkets (locally, Ralph's, Vons and Albertsons), sell bags of raw, already cleaned and diced nopales. My problem with buying them in bags is you don't know the size of the cactus paddles before they were cleaned and prepped. I prefer to be able to buy them where I can pick and choose the cactus. The smaller the leaves, the younger and more tender they are. As they grow, they get a bit more fibrous which can make them a bit tough. So I get the smallest ones I can find. I prefer to buy them at Northgate Market (there are several around the county) where the turnover is fast and they have a good selection of small, young leaves that I can pick and choose from. This is an inexpensive, budget-friendly food. You can buy 2 pounds for $0.99. And if you don't want to clean them yourself (don't be scared, I have a video below that shows you how easy it is!), they sell bagged and cleaned relatively young nopales for not much more. 

So, you've picked out the small paddles of cactus, brought it home and now what? Those needles need to be removed. My grandmother is pretty quick at cleaning them with a knife. Most abuelitas are. Mom and Dad are, too. I, on the other hand, am not. When I'm staring down a pound or two of nopales waiting to be cleaned, going slowly is not an option. But the faster I go, the more I knick and slice into the poor little paddles. However, I found a solution for this: cactus needles, meet spoon. Check out the video below to see it in action:

Once you have removed the needles (I call them "thorns" in the video because if you're not paying attention when you handle them, they can prick!), give them a quick rinse under cool running water than cut them up. I was using these for salad so I opted to dice them but you can also slice them into 1-inch by ¼-inch long strips (like they are in the jarred variety).

First slice them lengthwise in ½-inch thick strips. You can see in this photo how small these cactus paddles are. Tender!

Turn them and slice them again to make ½-inch diced pieces.

You're going to want to give these guys a rinse. Have you ever cut aloe vera? Know the sticky, thick substance that oozes out that you use for burns? It's nectar and it can get a bit sticky and slimy so to minimize, I like to rinse these guys before I cook them.

Into a pot they go. Add enough water to cover (they'll float) and toss in a big jalepeño, a bit of onion and garlic and some salt and you're set.

Fifteen minutes later and you've got tender, al dente nopales. Just drain them and give them a quick rinse and they're ready to eat as is, throw into a salad, scramble with eggs, or add to a taco. Truly delicious and nutritious. Give 'em a whirl and let me know what you think.

Until next time … ¡Buen Provecho!
xo, ani


Yield: 4 servings


1 pound fresh young cactus paddles
1 large jalapeño
¼ medium brown onion, skin removed
2 cloves garlic, skin removed
1 generous teaspoon sea salt
8 sprigs cilantro


Using a spoon at a 90 degree angle, scrape off the cactus needles on both sides of each paddle (see video above). Slice the bottom of the cactus paddle off and discard. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cactus paddle about ¼-inch in from the edge to remove the needles growing on the edge. Repeat with remaining paddles. Once all needles are removed and paddles have been trimmed, rinse well under cool running water. Dice cactus into a ½-inch dice and place into a colander. Rinse again before transferring to a 3 quart dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot; set aside.

Cut the top off of a jalapeño to expose the interior. Add to the pot of cactus along with the onion, garlic and salt. Place pot on medium heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes. At the 10 minute mark, remove lid and add the cilantro. Cook for 5 minutes longer. The nopales are ready when they give a little when you squeeze a piece gently between your thumb and index finger. You want them tender but not mushy. 

Remove from heat and drain into a colander. Rinse quickly with water and eat as is or use in your favorite recipe.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cardamom Quinoa Porridge with Cara Cara Oranges

Start your day on a nutritious high note with this single serve recipe for cardamom spiced quinoa porridge topped with gorgeous Cara Cara oranges and toasted sliced almonds. It's vegan, processed sugar-free, and gluten-free. 

Unlike my auntie who doesn't care for the texture of quinoa, I adore it. I make quinoa often to throw into my salad or serve alongside my main at dinner and even as patties and "meatballs." Always savory, though, never sweet. However, the idea of making quinoa for breakfast has intrigued me ever since I saw Brandon's breakfast quinoa recipe on Kitchen Konfidence.

I've been making oatmeal a few times a week and last weekend I had time to experiment with my breakfast porridge and after noticing the gorgeous cara cara navel oranges still sitting in the fruit bowl on the dining table, I decided it was time to try quinoa for breakfast.

I popped in to my pantry and opened up my spice drawer and stared at it for a bit, turning bottles over in my hands, opening some up and taking long whiffs until my hands came to rest upon the cardamom pods that a friend had given me. Cardamom. I've used it exactly once before so far. It was in my cauliflower soup and I thought that was quite a success. So I pulled them out, grabbed my homemade vanilla extract, my bag of white quinoa, my jar of sliced almonds and some sea salt as I headed back into the kitchen.

Putting my cast iron skillet on medium-low heat, I carefully toasted the almonds and promptly removed them when they reached a nice toasty color. I decided to use both almond milk and water for the liquid and added some Cara Cara zest for brightness. I wasn't sure how this was going to turn out. I just went for it and hoped for the best.

Turned out, my instincts were spot on. The porridge was fragrant enough to wake up your senses but not overpower, crunchy from the almonds, slightly sweet from the oranges, creamy from almond milk and simply a warm bowl of comfort.

I'm making it again this weekend! Hope you give it a whirl, too.

Until next time … happy "everyday eats"! xo, ani

Feel free to sub any orange on hand but if you can get Cara Cara's while they are still in season, you must try them. The flesh is a deep reddish orange, reminiscent of pink grapefruit in look but sweet like an orange. It's become my absolute favorite orange! Also, if you don't have almonds on hand, try chopped pecans or walnuts toasted. And if you aren't a fan of stevia, feel free to sub for your sweetener of choice. 

Yield: 1 serving


  cup almond milk
  cup filtered water
3 tablespoons white quinoa, rinsed well
1 cardamom pod, freshly ground in a spice grinder
pinch sea salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon cara cara orange zest
4 drops SweetLeaf SteviaClear liquid (or one single serving stevia packet)

For garnish: 
½ Cara Cara orange, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted


Place milk, water, quinoa, ground cardamom, salt, vanilla, orange zest and stevia into a small saucepan and bring to a boil; reduce to lowest setting, cover and let cook for 15 minutes. At the end of 15 minutes, turn heat off and leaving cover untouched, allow to sit for 10 minutes to finish steaming.  

While quinoa is simmering, prepare oranges for garnish and toast almonds. When ready to serve, remove quinoa to a bowl and top with oranges and almonds and adjust sweetness if desired. Add more almond milk if a thinner consistency is desired.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Frijoles de la Olla {#MeatlessMonday #Vegan}

Low calorie, low fat, low cholesterol and filled with fiber, iron, and phytonutrients, a freshly made pot of beans is a healthy protein option for Meatless Mondays. Here, I share with you my take on my family's traditional frijoles de la olla. 

Before I moved in with my Grandmother and Auntie Syl, Starbuck and I lived in a little 2 bedroom house in Normal Heights. During our evening walks, I always knew when I was walking past a Mexican home by the smell of frijoles de la olla (literal translation is "beans from the pot") wafting through the kitchen, past the dining and living rooms and out into the front yard where Starbuck and I were leisurely strolling by. It's very distinctive, that smell of fresh beans simmering on the stove with chiles and garlic. With just one whiff, I'm a child again, living carefree in the safety of my parent's home enveloped in love. Quite a strong and wonderful thing sensory memory is.

In my family, pinto beans are king. To this day, no black beans ever made an appearance on the family dinner table. That's not to say that I don't make them for myself because I do. Often in fact. But I have a particular fondness for pintos. I remember feeling important as a child (maybe as young as 4 years old) because Mom was teaching me to clean beans and roll out flour tortillas, trusting me to help out with the preparation of the family meal. I loved cooking, even back then.

Found two peoples amongst the broken and wrinkled rejects. Never skip this step. A broken tooth is no fun!

I also have very strong childhood memories of being here at my grandmother's home where a pot of fresh pinto beans on the stove was pretty much a permanent fixture. My Auntie Sally, may God rest her soul, would have me help her clean the beans while we sat at the dining table. She made a game out of it to see which one of us could find the most rocks or broken and wrinkled beans. Only beautiful, smooth, whole beans made it past her. I thought she was being overly fussy because even as a kid, I knew she was a picky eater. Helping mom, we only checked for rocks or beans with holes, only sometimes chucking broken pieces. Little did I know then that Sally's way was more than just aesthetics. Wrinkled beans indicate overly dry and old beans. And though they are still edible, they will take much longer to cook than fresh, smooth beans will so throwing them into the same pot will make for inconsistently cooked beans. Ditto broken beans. Beans with holes indicate something has already enjoyed a bit out of the bean so they, too, should be discarded.

As an adult, I get sucked into convenience over taste and rely too heavily on canned beans. It's a shame, really, because making fresh beans isn't difficult or time consuming if you plan for it. And the taste and health factor are far superior as you can control the sodium and freshness. Plus, fresh bean stock is freaking delicious! There were many nights while growing up when a bowl of fresh soupy beans topped with chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro was dinner. Served with fresh, warm tortillas, it's comforting and nutritious.

One cup of pinto beans is 245 calories and nearly 45 grams of carbohydrates. However, they are also very high in insoluble fiber –15.4 grams – making them a good choice for diabetics and people suffering from insulin resistance as the high fiber content helps to keep blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly. Pinto beans are also a good source of folate (necessary for the production of red blood cells), copper (helps maintain blood volume and convert energy in cells), manganese (for bone structure), phosphorus (bone building), protein, vitamin B1, vitamin B6, magnesium (necessary for nerve and muscle function), potassium (lowers the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease), and iron. Some studies have also shown that the inclusion of pinto beans in the diet can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers as well as helping you to lose weight.

If you're concerned with the digestibility of beans, soaking them overnight helps. Simply place the beans in water and allow to soak overnight, rinsing them and replacing the water periodically. Even better is to place the beans into a pot of water, bring to a boil, cover, remove them from the heat and then allow them to soak overnight. Soaking helps to remove up to 60% of the phytic acid in the beans that block mineral absorption. When ready to cook, rinse the beans several times and use fresh water to cook them. Soaking also reduces cooking time. There are also some studies that suggest adding bitter greens to the cooking can help digestibility issues. In fact, households in Mexico will add a leaf or two of a bitter green herb called epazote to the pot (dandelion will act similarly, although it won't impart the same flavor that epazote does). Personally, my family never soaked beans and we had no issues. I've included soaking in the recipe but leave it up to you. Not soaking will add as much as two hours to the total cooking time listed in the recipe and you'll need to check the beans every hour to add more water to the pot so the beans are always covered by at least 2 inches of water.

Dried pinto beans are also a very economical way to get good quality protein into your diet and are an especially good choice for Meatless Mondays, or like me, Meatless Fridays during the lenten season. I picked these beans up in a bulk bin at Northgate Market for $0.99 per pound! The jalapeño was $0.23. The tomatos were $1.00. The avocado was $0.79. Two dozen tortillas was $1.99. The cilantro was $0.69. The bay leaves, onion and garlic I already had in my pantry. This feeds 8 people making this a very budget-friendly meal.

Tips at a glance:

  • Carefully pick through dry beans, discarding pebbles, broken beans, overly wrinkled beans, beans with holes
  • If cooking without soaking, rinse beans several times first
  • If soaking beans, change water every couple of hours, rinsing beans well each time
  • Always start your beans with cold water
  • Do not add salt until beans have softened as adding it too early will make beans tough and prolong cooking time
  • Do not cook beans at a hard boil as the rigorous bubbling water will force the skins off the beans, removing some of that good fiber; beans should be cooked at a gentle simmer over low to medium-low heat
  • Don't toss the cooking liquid; it's delicious and nutritious and can be used like stock for cooking grains or added to the beans when making refried beans to add moisture and help make the creamy
  • Store thoroughly cooled beans in the refrigerator for up to three days

About 8 servings


1 pound dried pinto beans
2 gloves garlic, peeled
1 large jalapeño, washed well, top with stem cut off
¼ medium onion, peeled
2 dried bay leaves
2 teaspoons sea salt

For garnish:
2 roma tomatoes
¼ medium onion, peeled
½ bunch cilantro, thick stems removed
1 large avocado
Queso fresco, to taste (for the non-vegans)

To serve:
8 corn tortillas, warmed


Spread beans out on work surface a little a time, picking through them, removing any debris, broken beans, beans with holes and beans that are wrinkled or shriveled. Place beans in a bowl or pot and fill with water to cover by a least 2 inches. Leave to soak for at least four hours or overnight, draining, rinsing the beans and replacing the water at least once after the first few hours.

When ready to cook beans, rinse well under running water. Place beans in a 5 or 6 quart pot and cover beans with water by at least 2 inches. Add the garlic cloves, jalapeño, onion and bay leaves. Turn heat on to medium high and bring just to the boil then reduce heat and simmer on low for 1 hour. At the 1 hour mark, test beans by carefully removing one bean and pinching between fingers. If it gives easily, add the salt and continue to simmer an additional 20 minutes. If the bean is still quite firm, continue cooking, check the beans every 15-20 minutes until just softened. Then add the salt and simmer an additional 20 minutes.

While beans are simmering the last 20 minutes, prepare the garnishes. Cut the tomatoes in half, remove seeds and discard seeds; chop tomatoes. Finely chop the onion. Finely chop the cilantro (I don't bother removing the smaller, tender stems). Peel the avocado and thinly slice, then chop.

To serve, ladle a cup of beans in a bowl including a healthy serving of the cooking liquid. Garnish with choice of toppings and serve with a warmed corn tortilla.

Allow beans to cool completely before storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Finish leftovers within three days.

Until next time … xo, ani