Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cactus casserole with rice, ancho chiles and cheese

cactus casserole

Every year at this time, I face the same problem. See, I’m a bit lackadaisical when it comes to buying my plane ticket home for Thanksgiving. And now that it’s so close to the date, prices have risen to insane heights. Oh, you’d think that I’d get wise and start buying my ticket early, but much to the consternation of my family I do this to myself every year.

Of course, I tell myself that if it’s meant to happen I will be with my family. I am patient and calm. But one person who I know for certain won’t be at the farm for Thanksgiving this year is my cousin Andrew, who will be with his girlfriend’s family instead. And since Andrew is always in charge of green-bean casserole, I just don’t know if we’ll be serving it this year or not.

Well, this got me thinking.

cactus nopal

Have you ever eaten cactus? Edible cactus, which in Spanish is known as nopal, comes from the prickly pear cactus, a beautiful plant that dots the landscape of West Texas. The plant has wide paddles that resemble a beaver’s tail and with a little care (yes, you remove the thorns) the paddles make for a delicious vegetable. It’s also extremely nutritious, as some studies have noted that eating cactus helps treat diabetes and lower cholesterol levels. Though health benefits aside, I simply like to eat it because it tastes so darn good.

Eating cactus is pretty common in Texas, especially in San Antonio and along the border. The most frequent application is cactus scrambled with eggs, which makes for a fine breakfast taco filling. But you can also make cactus salad, cactus soup, cactus relleno or simply grill it and serve it with roasted meat.

When people ask, “What does cactus taste like,” the best answer is that it’s similar to green beans. And so with this in mind, I decided to make a cactus casserole to replace the green-bean casserole we won’t be eating this year.

Another popular way to serve cactus is to cook it in a chile cream sauce, which is what I used as the base for my casserole. But taking a nod from that other popular Southern holiday staple, broccoli and rice casserole, I decided to add some rice and cheese to my cactus casserole as well.

I have to admit, when I made this I had no idea how it would taste as I was just acting on a whim. But it’s hard to go wrong with a combination of cheese, rice, sour cream and chiles, and even if you think you don’t like cactus, this is an excellent way to try it for the first time.

cactus casserole

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been bombarded with reminders that Thanksgiving is coming soon, so perhaps your Thanksgiving menu is already planned. But you certainly don’t need a holiday to eat this cactus casserole, just an urge to eat something that’s a little strange but at the same time is also a little familiar. If it is your first time eating cactus, I hope that you enjoy it and want to try it again. And if you do eat cactus, how do you like to prepare it?

Cactus casserole
2 dried ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
3/4 pound cactus paddles (or one 15 ounce jar of cactus paddles)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
3 cups cooked rice
1 pound Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
Salt to taste

Method:
In a dry skillet heated on high, toast the ancho chiles on each side for about 10 seconds or just until they start to puff. Fill the skillet with enough water to cover the chiles. Leave the heat on until water begins to boil and then turn off the heat and let the chiles soak until soft, about 20 minutes. Once hydrated, discard the soaking water and rinse the chiles. Place the chiles in a blender with 1/4 cup of water and blend until a paste forms.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the cactus, if you’re using fresh cactus paddles, first you’ll need to remove the thorns. To do this, trim off the thick base and the edges of the paddle, about 1/8 of an inch all around. Wearing a glove, one at a time, hold each paddle over the sink and while running water over it, scrub it with a vegetable or pot scrubber on both sides until all the thorns are gone. You can also scrape the paddle with a paring knife, but be careful not to also scrape off too much of the green skin.

Slice the cleaned paddles into thin (about 2 inches by 1/4 inch) strips and place in a pot of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse well under cold water. If using canned paddles, simply drain them and then rinse with cold water.

In a large cast-iron skillet, heat up the canola oil on medium heat. Add the onions to the skillet and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a bowl, mix together the sour cream the ancho chile paste, the cumin, the oregano, the allspice, the cayenne and half the shredded cheese. Then stir in the cooked rice and the cactus. Taste and add salt and adjust the seasonings. Spoon the sour cream, rice and cactus mixture into the greased skillet, stirring well to combine with the onions and garlic. Top with the remaining shredded cheese.

Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until brown and bubbling.

Yield: 8-10 servings

Notes: Cactus paddles, both fresh and canned, can be found at any Mexican grocery. Canned ones can be found at many regular supermarkets as well. In Spanish, they are called nopales or nopalitos, which is how they will be probably labeled at a Mexican grocery. And you can substitute 2 tablespoons chili powder for the ancho chiles if you prefer.

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42 comments:

Weekend Cowgirl said...

Lord knows I have plenty of cactus and Cowboy would get a kick out of this recipe!!!

homegrown countrygirl said...

I just love how you write!!! I can't get cactus easily... I can't grow it in my garden and I can't even get it at my local grocery (I mean, they don't even stock cans of ro-tel there, for goodness sakes)! But as usual, your post makes me want to be sitting down at your table right now for a bite of something fabulous... I swear, I'd use my napkin and be polite... thanks for the amazing description, even though it makes me want for something I can't get!!! Good luck getting that ticket home! I'm looking forward to your cookbook!

Melanie said...

I am so excited to make this. I have always wanted to try cactus but it was always a little intimidating to me. What a good recipe to ease me into it!! Thanks.

Amy said...

If you'd like to use fresh nopales and save yourself some work, I know some HEBs have been known to sell them in little bags already cut up--sliced fresh by someone right there for you! Just thought I'd give y'all a heads up ;)

Happy cooking!

Anonymous said...

My husband eats cactus straight out of the jar, so I think he'll like this recipe. And I will, too.
-Lisa

Kelly H. said...

This definitely sounds like something I need to try. Thanks for going outside the box. :)

Kelly

SweetSavoryPlanet said...

I don't even know if I could find nopales here in PA which makes me miss Tx. I am sure I could find it somewhere. This looks good.

Jessica said...

I was born and raised in SA, but have never had cactus! Definitely have had prickly pear in things, mainly margaritas. :) Anyway, I have seen cactus at HEB before - would love to give this a try!

Anonymous said...

I think cactus taste more like aloe vera than green beans- cactus is a little sour. ^__^

Paris

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Weekend Cowgirl--Hope he enjoys it!

Homegrown countrygirl--Thank you and good luck in finding cactus!

Melanie--You're welcome!

Amy--Thanks for the tip!

Kelly--It's hard to go wrong with lots of cheese!

SweetSavoryPlanet--You'd be surprised--I've seen them more places than I thought possible. Though you could always substitute green beans.

Jessica--I love prickly pear, too. And you need to try cactus, at least once!

Paris--I've never eaten ale vera but I'll take your word for it!

Ranchand said...

Miguelitos restaurant in Denton serves a puerco con nopalitos dish that is amazing. I'm betting that this gives it a run for its money. I may head out to the cactus patch and harvest some nopal this afternoon.

Joycee said...

I love to have regional favorites to add to our Thanksgiving meal, this is perfect. These grow on my grandpa's farm here in Arkansas but I'm prob. going to take the easy way out and go to my local hispanic grocery for the de-prickled prickly pears!

Olivia said...

I have had nopales salad once, brought in by a Mexican colleague, now friend. He was always bringing in yummy things and sharing it with a couple of us he was close with.
I noted that the cactus was slightly sour, but mostly flat. More interesting than beans.

The stores in the DC area have fairly decent Mexican sections, but I'm not sure I've ever seen nopales in my neighborhood, so I'll have to go exploring.

Like Paris, I have eaten aloe vera, but it was in a can from Trader Joe's and the preservatives may have interfered with the taste. I put it in jello!

FreeRangePamela said...

We have cactus in our yard. Is there anything wrong with just cutting off a few paddles and removing the spines as you've suggested? Or is there some difference between the ones growing wild and the ones you'd get in the grocery store? This is a new food group to me, but I'd love to give it a try! Thanks, HST!

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Ranchand--See, that's what I love about Texas--you can just go out to the cactus patch and harvest some for your dinner. And I will definitely check out Miguelito's next time I'm in the Denton area.

Joycee--Ha! That's certainly what I do!

Olivia--Aloe vera in jello? Oh, my! I will have to try that sometime!

FreeRangePamela--I don't think so, I know plenty of Texans that gather their cactus from their land. You might just check that it's indeed the edible prickly pear cactus.

Shelley said...

I've never seen photographs do so much for food!

I don't think my characters ever ate cacti: just beans.

Heather L said...

Thanks for this post! I always see cactus at the grocery store (we have a huge Latino community here) and I've always wondered what to do with it. I'll try this soon!

Brenda said...

Lisa, I've lived in Texas all my life and the only thing I remember eating cactus in was jelly. But I think your casserole looks amazing and I'm pretty darn sure I would love it seeing that cast iron skillet it's cooked up in. I may just have to mosey down to the pasture and find some cactus.Maybe I can talk my sweet thing into going with me and helping me get it.

J.W. said...

I eat my cactus in a salad that combines cactus from the jar, in-season tomatoes, onion, cilantro, dry oregano and olive oil. The tomatoes have to be summer tomatoes or the salad is no good. :) Love your blog...

Stay-At-Home-Chef said...

I should know better than to read your blog when I'm hungry. Now I'm absolutely STARVING...thanks a lot ;)

Pau F said...

Oh my god, there is nothing I miss more about Mexico than Nopales. I'll have to try this recipe when I go home next month. thanks!!

Rich said...

You know what, Lisa? I live in Texas. I cook a lot. A whole lot. And I STILL don't eat as well as you appear to. This is a freaking casserole and it looks unbelievable. So, basically, thank you for hurting my pride with your delicious food.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Shelley--Thank you! Though everything looks delicious when it's in a cast-iron skillet, I believe.

Brenda--Cactus jelly? I've never had that but must try!

J.W.--That sounds wonderful!

Stay-at-Home-Chef--Just doing my job!

Pau F--They know how to serve them right in Mexico, that's for sure!

Rich--Don't worry, I also consume plenty of take-out Chinese and slices of pizza. It's not all good-looking casseroles at my house!

Janus said...

Why discard the water in which you soaked the chilies? Why not use some of it to make the paste?

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Janus--I always discard the water because I find it's bitter.

Cary Coons said...

I was hoping someone would leave a comment confirming the deliciousness of the dish but nobody did. I decided to make it since I have never had cactus and I have to confirm that this was incredibly good. Thank you for introducing me to a delicious new food and a wonderful new dish.

Katie@Cozydelicious said...

This looks amazing. I have never had cactus before. And actually, I looked today for the canned version. No luck. Any tips on where to buy it?

Chocolate Freckles said...

I love nopales!!! .. they are just awesome and super healthy too.. this casserole looks awesome!!!

Sandy said...

I would caution about using the cactus in a jar (or at least check the label.) The jar I bought had over 1100 mg sodium per serving! I didn't realize that until I got it home. I'm not sure I know what nopales really tastes like. It certainly made the casserole salty, even though I washed it several times before using it.

Tommy said...

I am definitely going to have problems finding cactus in Toronto, but I'll try when I'm next in Texas Lisa.

Tea said...

Can I pay you to fly out here and make this for me right now? Seriously. Comfort food heaven. At least this would be mine. xox

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Cary--Excellent news! I'm so happy that y'all enjoyed it!

Katie--Try Whole Foods--they sell it here in NYC. Or try a Mexican market. Good luck!

Sandy--Oh, I'm so sorry!

Tommy--I've seen online that Perola's might sell them. And Whole Foods in Buffalo could as well.

Tea--I'm long overdue a trip to the Pac NW, both to meet my nephew and visit family and friends. I'll definitely make this next time I'm there!

Amanda said...

I had no idea that cactus was so nutritious! I kept getting a bunch in my farm subscription this past summer. I ate them grilled with fajitas, with eggs, and in a white chicken chili. I'll save this recipe for next summer's cactus overload. (And yes, I agree with other commenters who said cactus is more sour than green beans. It's also slimey like okra.)

Rebecca said...

I live in the Texas Hill Country, west of San Antonio. Never had cactus, but see it in every store. Do you think I can use brown rice? I'm going to try it this weekend.

Anonymous said...

I made this recipe the other night for a group and everyone loved it. I noticed there are onions lists in the recipe, but not used? Everyone loved it anyways.

Anonymous said...

So I made this for thanksgiving but with a twist... substituted macaroni for the rice and used 1/2 sour cream and 1/2 mexican crema (kind of half way between sour cream and cream cheese).

Also I put a bunch of Cotija cheese on the top. Yes it was good.

FishMama said...

I have half a jar of cactus in the fridge. Do you know how long it will be good for? I'd love to try this in a half-batch.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Fish Mama--I'd think cactus could last for a week or so in the fridge.

Kate Stulpin said...

Yum! I just need to find a market that sells cactus now. Looks delicious.

Kate
http://relishtherussian.wordpress.com/

Anonymous said...

I will remember this when I have a Catus Paddle and am up a dry creek!

Celeste said...

I made this casserole for a "Thanksgiving Practice" dinner and it got raves. So, now I've tried this as a replacement for green bean casserole, I've got the Ensalada de Noche Buena to replace ambrosia. What would you suggest as the main dish - cabrito? Chicken in mole sauce? I'm going for a Latino twist on the holiday meal...

Tera said...

Nopalito and bison taquitos are the best! Even better on homemade corn tortillas.

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