Costillitas con Nopales en Salsa Guajillo (ribs and cactus in red salsa)

One of my favorite ways to eat pork rib tips or riblets is paired with lemony cactus and swimming in a rich, mildly spicy guajillo sauce over rice.

The scent of chiles toasting hung low like a sweet, spicy cloud swirling around the kitchen. I worked with one or two chiles at a time for the most control, flipping, then flattening them with a spatula against the screaming hot carbon steel comal (griddle) explicitly reserved for such tasks. As each chile blistered and darkened, I snatched it off the hot surface and plunged it into a small pot of boiling water, simultaneously tossing the next chile onto the comal. The repetition of each movement, knowing when the chile has toasted just enough to wake it up, removing it seconds before it blackens and becomes bitter, is such a meditative, intuitive process for me, one that I've been practicing for years.

As the chiles hung out in their hot water bath, a thick slice of onion, a deep red Roma tomato and a fat clove of garlic left in its skin replaced the chiles on the blistering hot comal. I rotated, flipped and kept an eye on the veg until they were charred and blackened. The garlic was ready first so I pulled it off and set it on the chopping board to cool slightly. A few minutes later, I tossed the charred tomato into my blender just as the skin started to burst. The onion came next once its color had changed from white to deep brown with flecks of black. I then carefully tore off the blackened garlic skin, revealing the sweetened yet pungent and now golden garlic flesh and tossed the clove into the blender. I added the rehydrated chiles and some of the soaking liquid, then blended until thick and smooth, like ketchup.

I placed a deep-sided skillet on the stove and warmed it on medium for a few minutes. I poured in some oil and waited for it to shimmer, indicating it was hot. I held the skillet's lid vertically with one hand like a shield between my favorite gray t-shirt and the hot skillet while the other held the blender filled with the salsa. In one fluid movement, I poured the salsa into the hot oil. Immediately, the salsa began to jump and sputter, trying its hardest to escape the hot oil. Before it made too much of a mess all over Sophia (my stove, yes, she has a name), I covered the skillet. I added a cup of water to the blender, swirled it roughly to incorporate any sauce left behind, lifted the lid and added it to the less angry but still bubbling sauce. I added the seasonings and left the sauce to simmer. 

Frying the sauce in hot oil is the last step in making most Mexican salsas. It provides two things: it helps the ingredients meld, creating a more pronounced and well-rounded flavor, plus cooked salsas will last a few days longer in the refrigerator than fresh or uncooked ones.

A hands-on kitchen task involving sight, smell, touch and taste, working with dried chiles is an essential component of many Mexican kitchens. Whether frying, dry toasting, or merely rehydrating before blending into moles, simmering sauces or a simple table salsa, homemade sauces prepared from dried chiles are bolder and more balanced than anything you'd get in a can or jar. 

Costillitas con nopales – pork riblets with cactus – are ingredients that go just as well with either red or green sauce. Today, though, I'm sharing my favorite combination, which is to pair the ribs and cactus with a versatile salsa rojo or, more specifically, salsa guajillo. 

Salsa rojo translates to red sauce. The dried chiles to use and how many are interpreted by the cook, usually determined by the salsa's ultimate use or protein pairing. Chile combinations might also depend on geography or familial recipes handed down from an abuela (grandmother) or tia (auntie).   

For my tastes, pork is a protein that pairs particularly well with salsa rojo, especially today's simple sauce made from guajillo chiles. The astringent yet earthy and mildly spicy guajillos cut through pork's richness for a perfectly balanced bite (though, salsa verde's lemony undertones and fresh green chile pairs just as well with pork).

Today's recipe always makes me think of a dish I grew up eating, my Dad's costillas con calabacitas (ribs with chopped squash). He would take full-size pork spare ribs and use his ginormous cleaver to cut the ribs into 1-inch pieces. I have neither a cleaver large enough nor the strength to do the same. Instead, I buy either rib tips (pictured today) or, my preference, pork spare ribs (riblets) already butchered into 1- or 2-inch pieces (Northgate Market sells them inexpensively, as do some Asian markets). 

As for the cactus, unfortunately, its slowly oozing viscous fluid in both its raw and cooked forms turns many people off this nutritious vegetable. Please don't be one of those people! There are ways around the slime! Let me explain.

Most cooks boil their cactus with onion, garlic and jalapeño, precisely as my grandma taught me. But boiled cactus still requires a bit of a rinse to rid it from any remaining sticky residue before adding the cactus to recipes. 

These days, I no longer use any water for cooking cactus. I just use heat to force out the sap – which eventually evaporates – along with a little bit of oil to keep the cactus from sticking to the pan. The result is tender bites of lemony cactus. I discovered this technique after many hours spent digging deeper into regional Mexican cooking. I decided to try this new to me method and haven't looked back. Cactus cooked this way requires no rinsing, thus retaining all the savoriness from any aromatics used in the cooking process. 

There are now no excuses to keep you from cooking, eating and enjoying this nutritional powerhouse. And paired with these little bites of ribs and earthy, mildly spiced sauce, it’s a fantastic introduction to this pre-Columbian staple of Mesoamerica.

How to make Costillitas con Nopales en Salsa Guajillo

Prep the cactus


Start with 5 small to medium cactus paddles, rinsed.


Place a knife or spoon perpindicular to the cactus and scrape off the thorns and their nubs. (it's okay if some of the little nub is left behind so long as the thorn has been removed).


Trim away and discard the outer ¼-inch edge of the cactus.


Slice the cactus into strips, about ¼-inch thick.


Cut the strips into 1- to 1½-inch pieces.


Don't worry if the cactus pieces aren't identical in length. Just get them as similar as possible.


Add some oil to a nonstick skillet along with the cactus, garlic, onions and salt. The oil will help keep the cactus from sticking as the sap evaporates.


As the cactus cooks, it will change from bright green to a dull olive and …


… will begin to seep it's sticky sap. Stir occasionally.


As soon as all the sap has evaporated the cactus can be transferred to a small bowl. At this point, the cactus is fully cooked and there shouldn't be any seeping sap so rinsing is not needed. The cactus should be tender with a hint of snap when you bite into it. 

Cook the meat


These are pork rib tips. Usually, for this recipe, I like to use riblets (or spare ribs cut into 1-inch pieces by the butcher) but rib tips work just as well. Because of quarantine, I'm restricting my shopping to those grocers who are doing home delivery so I'm stuck with what they have at the time I place my order. 

Rib tips are the meaty underside trimmings left when a butcher cuts down a rack to make St. Louis Style ribs. There is usually a bit of cartilege and sometimes a bit of bone fragments but the meat is still tasty rib meat. 

Riblets, on the other hand, are that part of the rack of ribs that a butcher removes to square it off for a more uniform presentation and even cooking. These ends are tiny ribs and are labled as riblets. 


This particular package of rib tips had a lot of excess fat so I trimmed some away. You want some fat on the ribs as they'll render and brown in their own fat but we don't need a lot.


Place the ribs in a medium saucepan along with the root end of a piece of onion, two fresh bay leaves (or 1 dried), garlic, salt and water. Cook, covered, on medium for 15 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking on medium-low until water has evaporated. 


Once water has evaporated, the ribs will start to render out their fat. Cook, occasionally stirring, until the meat has lightly browned, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.

Make the sauce


Begin by wiping the chiles with a damp paper towel to remove the dust. Cut the stemed top of a chile pod, slit the pod open and remove the seeds and veins. Repeat with all the chiles. 

Put a pot of water to boil.


Open the chile up so that it lays flat on a very hot comal (griddle) or skillet. Press the chile with a spatula so that it makes good contact with the hot surface. Toast on each side for about 15 seconds (the chile will blister and change color). Be careful not to blacken as this means the chile has burned and it will introduce unwanted bitter notes into the sauce. (When making mole negro, you actually do want the chiles blackened but that bitter note is balanced with the addition of sugar from dried fruit and chocolate. In a simple sauce like this, you want the acidity from the chiles but not the bitterness as there is nothing to counteract it.)


As the chiles are toasted, remove them to the pot of boiling water. Once all the chiles are in the pot, submerge them, cover with a lid, turn off heat and steep for 15 minutes.


While the chiles are steeping, char the tomato, onion slice and garlic clove (with the skin on). Turn the veggies so they blacken on all sides. When the clove has blackened, remove and let cool slightly, then peel the skin and add the clove to a blender. When the tomato and onion have blackened, add them to the blender.


Pour a ½ cup of the steeping liquid into the blender.


Blend on high for 5 minutes until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of ketchup. If it's too paste-like, add a bit more water and blend again. If you're using a standard blender, you might need to blend for as long as 10 to 12 minutes to get it smooth whereas a high-powered blender will take 5-8 minutes. 


If you used a standard blender, you might need to strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve to catch any chunks of skin or errant seed that didn't break down enough.


Your sauce should look nice and smooth.


Heat oil in a 10- or 12-inch nonstick skillet. With the blender in one hand and the skillet lid in the other, pour the sauce into the hot oil and immediately cover to contain the sputtering sauce. Add a cup of steeping liquid to the blender jar and swirl aggressively to loosen any left behind sauce and pour it into the skillet. Stir in the salt. Place the oregano in the palms of your hands and rub them together over the skillet, letting the dried herb fall into the sauce. Doing this releases the essential oil from the leaves. Cook the sauce, covered, on medium-low for 10-15 minutes. 



After simmering for at least 10 minutes, the chile's oil will have been released add floated to the top of the sauce. Give the sauce a good stir to redistribute the chile oil.

Finsh the dish and serve


Stir in the meat and simmer for 1 minute.


Add the nopales. 


Let the dish simmer for a few minutes to heat through.


Serve over white rice and garnish with cilantro, diced white onions and sliced jalapeños (optional).

Costillitas con Nopales en Salsa Guajillo

(Pork riblets with Cactus in Guajillo Sauce)

A note about salt in my recipes, I always use sea salt, either coarse, medium or fine. If you use regular iodized table salt, decrease the salt amounts by at least half. 

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

FOR THE CACTUS:

4-5 small to medium cactus paddles
1 tablespoon oil    
¼ onion (see recipe directions)
fat cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

FOR THE MEAT:

1½- 2 pounds pork rib tips, pork riblets, or 1- to 1½-inch long pork spareribs
¼ onion, root end intact (see recipe directions)
2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried
1 fat clove garlic, peeled
1½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
Water

FOR THE SALSA:

Water
10 guajillo chiles
1 large roma tomato
½-inch thick slice of onion 
1 fat clove garlic, peel on
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon whole Mexican oregano

TO SERVE:
Cooked white rice
Chopped white onion
Cilantro leaves
Sliced jalapeños

Directions

Prep and cook the cactus

Use a spoon or knife held at a 90-degree angle to scrape off the cactus' thorns. Trim away ¼-inch of the outer edge to remove all the thorns growing out of the edges. Rinse the cactus well, then cut lengthwise into ¼-inch strips. Cut the strips into 1½ -inch pieces.

Drizzle the oil into a heated 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat, preferably nonstick. Cut a large onion in half across the circumference. Working with the root end, slice the onion in half across the circumference, keeping the root intact. Add the thick slice to the skillet, reserving the root end to cook with the meat. Add the cactus, garlic and salt to the skillet. Cook, covered for 15 minutes, occasionally stirring. Uncover and cook until all the sap has evaporated. Remove to a small bowl. Wash skillet and set aside.

While the cactus is cooking, prep and cook the meat

Separate the ribs into individual pieces, trimming away excess fat. Add them to a medium saucepan. Add the bay leaves, the root end of the onion, garlic and salt, then add water to cover by 1 inch. Turn heat to medium and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Uncover, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until the water has evaporated, occasionally stirring to keep from sticking. Once the water has evaporated, cook another 5-10 minutes until meat renders its fat and has lightly browned. Set aside. 

Make the sauce

Remove the dust from the chiles by wiping them with a damp paper towel. Cut their tops off and discard, then slit the chiles open, removing and discarding the seeds and veins. Fill a medium saucepan ⅔ of the way with water and set to boil on medium. Heat a griddle or a skillet on medium. When hot, add a chile, one or two at a time, toasting on each side for about 15 to 20 seconds; press with a rubber spatula to ensure they make good contact with the hot surface. As they blister and become fragrant, transfer them to the pot of boiling water. Be careful not to burn the chiles, or they will become bitter. Once all the chiles are in the boiling water, cover the pot, turn off heat and steep for 15 minutes. 

In the meantime, place the tomato, onion slice and garlic on the hot griddle and char on all sides. The garlic will be ready first. Remove it from the heat to cool slightly, then peel off the skin. Once the tomato and onion have blackened, toss them and the garlic into a blender. Add the rehydrated chiles along with ½ cup of the steeping liquid. Blend on high until smooth, about 5 to 8 minutes if using a high-powered blender (such as a Vitamix or Blendtec), or 10 to 12 minutes in a standard blender (if using a standard blender, you might also need to sieve the sauce before frying in the next step). 

Heat the oil on medium in a large 10- or 12-inch skillet. Once shimmering, carefully pour in the sauce – the sauce will jump and sputter – and immediately cover with lid and let cook for 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of the steeping liquid to the blender, swirling to loosen up any sauce left behind, add it to the skillet. Stir in the salt. Place the oregano in the palms of your hands. Rub them together over the skillet to crush the herb, letting it fall into the sauce (this releases the essential oil in the leaves). Stir well and simmer for 10 minutes covered. After 10 minutes, you should see little pools of bright red chile oil on the sauce's surface, indicating it's ready to have the rest of the ingredients incorporated. Stir in the meat and cactus, simmering for another 5 minutes to heat through.

Serve over rice and garnish with fresh cilantro and, optionally, jalapeño slices.

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