Cookbook #44: The Essential Cuisines of Mexico

Adapted from Cookbook #44:  The Essential Cuisines of Mexico (2000)

Recipe:  Legumbres en Pipian Oaxaqueno  (Vegetables in Oaxacan Pumpkin Seed Sauce)

Apparently the season for nopales is spring.  I didn't know.  Perhaps the requisite peas in the recipe should have been a red flag, but I am a Midwestern gringo, and I have little experience eating nopales.  And once again, I have been reminded not to be a doubter.  Our friends to the south have got something going on.  These little cactus paddles are indeed something behold.  And after beholding them, you should ingest them.

A native Brit, Diana Kennedy is a master of Mexican cooking. In fact, she is often referred to as the Julia  Child of Mexican cooking, but such a moniker seems unfair to me.  Why is Julia not the Diana Kennedy of French cuisine?  Ah, well.  Kennedy went to Mexico in 1957, and in the ensuing 50 years, she has watched and learned from villagers, urbanites, indigenous peoples and Mestizos.  I must admit, my politics generally keep me from exploring Fox News, but here is a lovely interview with Kennedy.  She is a goddess.  And has some pretty strong ideas about how to cook.  Further, with Kennedy you'll find no Tex-Mex cooking laden with cheese.  Instead, you get the real deal:  authentic Mexican dishes.

This cookbook is a wonderful introduction to Kennedy as it combines her first three (now classic) cookbooks in one volume.  What's lovely about the cookbook are the introductions to the recipes.   Including this one.  This recipe comes from Oaxaca, where Kennedy and a friend of hers decided to make a pipian of nopales and peas.  Kennedy says that "of course" this recipe could have poached chicken, stewed pork, or cubed zucchini with quartered mushrooms for those of us without the temerity or the resources to procure nopales.

Let's learn about the cactus, shall we?  Nopales are the "cactus stems" (nopal means cactus), and specifically what you find in the supermarket is the pad of the prickly pear.  Native to Mexico, the cactus was probably eaten long before the Spanish arrival.  The Spanish came, got a taste for these little veggies, and took them back to Europe, where the Moors picked up the dish, and now we see nopales as a Northern African food as well.

The pads are harvested in spring (but also in late summer, so I am not too off in my procurement of them in October).  To prepare the cactus, take the back of a knife and scrape the flesh, but be careful of the fine thorns--I still have one stuck in my right hand pointer finger from about a week ago when I picked my two pads up at the grocery store.  Wash the pads with water and peel or trim off any discolored areas or areas where the thorns will not easily come off.  Slice the pads into long, thin strips (and for this recipe, then dice them).  Here is a good little website for all of your nopales paddle cleaning needs. 


Pipian is a traditional, piquant Mexican sauce, served over roast chicken or enchiladas.  It is part of the family of ground sauces known as moles.  The key ingredient in these pipian sauces are pumpkin or squash seeds, which are roasted or dried.  This seems handy as it is Halloween, and you just might have some pumpkin seeds available to you.  Finally, serve with corn tortillas.  Oh yes.

November 01:  And I am adding an addendum from a friend of mine who told me this story after seeing this post:  "Once while living on a Mexican naval base on a desert island (long story) I harvested and "cleaned" wild prickly pear pads in an attempt to have a vegetable. (I was inspired by watching a feral sheep try to remove the prickled with its hooves before giving up and eating the pad, prickled). The pads were thick and the end result was a slimy mess. The dish was reminiscent of green beans in gelatin. Yuck. Thinner pads purchased at the Mexican grocer a comfortable distance from your house is recommended."  Word to the wise.  Word to the wise.

Serves 6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 pound nopales, diced (2-2/3 cups)
8 ounces raw, unhulled pumpkin seeds (about 2-3/4 cups)
Boiling water (enough to cover the chiles)
1 ancho chile
2 guajillo chiles
1 garlic clove
4 cups cold water, approximately
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 cups peas, frozen or fresh
2 sprigs epazote

1. To prepare nopales, scrape off any spines.  Cut into strips and then dice.  Heat oil in large, heavy saucepan and fry the garlic and shallot, without browning, for a few seconds.  Add nopales.  Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, until nopales are almost tender.

2.  Remove the lid from the pan and continue cooking over slightly higher heat until all the sticky liquid from the nopales has dried up--about 10-20 minutes, depending on how tender the nopales are.  Set aside.

3.  Meanwhile put the seeds into a heavy frying pan over medium heat.  Turn them constantly until they are evenly browned, keeping a lid handy, as they are likely to pop about fiercely.  Set them aside to cool.

4.  Remove the seeds and veins from the ancho chile.  Cover the chiles (ancho and guajillos) with water for 10 minutes or until soft.  Drain and transfer chiles to a blender.  Add the garlic clove and 1 cup of cold water to the chiles and blend until smooth.

5.  When the toasted seeds are cool, grind them, along with the cumin, preferably in a coffee/spice grinder-until they are rather fine but still have some texture.  Transfer to a bowl and stir in the remaining 3 cups of water until smooth.  Pass through a strainer and set aside.  Note:  there will be quite a bit of debris from the husks left in the strainer.

6.  Heat the oil in a large, heavy pan.  Add the chile sauce through a strainer, pressing down to extract as much of the juice as possible.  Lower the heat and fry the chile sauce, scraping the bottom of the pan constantly, until it has reduced and seasoned--about 2 minutes.

7.  Gradually stir in the pumpkin seed sauce and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time as it continues to thicken.  Add the salt, nopales, and peas, and heat them through for 15 minutes longer, adding the epazote just before the end of cooking time. 

8.  Serve hot, with fresh tortillas.


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