Lissa reminded me recently about the local Springs Road flea market and the great deals on produce one can find there. The flea market is on the grounds of a former drive-in theater, still with the large screened wall on the one end, large marquis sign out front with snaggle-toothed letters and a roped off parking area. The market itself is comprised of a more permanent closed-in area, covered area and open area with vendors hawking pretty much anything you can imagine. Perfume oils? Beef jerky? 1980s Jordache jeans? Nascar toys? You got it, and maybe even all from the same booth. Plus, it’s a pretty interesting study in people too, those that sell and those that buy.
Anyway, I was interested in the food. There are several ethnic vendors offering “common” and then lesser known fruits and veggies, at least lesser known to me. Our first trip out specifically to food shop was a cold and gray winter day. We arrived at about 1:30 and most of the flea market junk booths were closed up but some of the food guys were still around. The variety we found was fascinating. I picked up a bunch of greenery, stemmy like cilantro but with leaves more like a variety of watercress. I asked the Spanish-speaking vendor what it was and all he said was ‘it’s a vegetable, you boil it’. I wasn’t feeling it so I put it back. What we did find intriguing was the cactus leaves or nopales (no-pah-lace). One of the vendors was a friendly Spanish gentleman Roberto who, along with his wife Joana, patiently educated us about the cactus; its health benefits for diabetes for example and how to cook it. He also scurried around showing us the potatoes, cilantro, samples of Cheddar cheese imported from Wisconsin, among other things. Maybe he scurried around to keep warm, hmmmm, it was 38°.
Anyway, at the end of the day we walked away with cilantro, cactus, potatoes, avocados, cauliflower, limes, peppers, cayenne powder, cinnamon sticks, spinach, cheese, sugar snap peas, mushrooms, tomatoes, and a plum, oh and a ‘sport mango’. Still don’t know what that is other than tasty.
With curiosity and a spirit of adventure I took Roberto’s advice and tried my hand at cooking the cactus leaves. (Joana had already cut the prickly parts off thankfully) The leaves were soft and easy to slice so I cut 2 into strips, brought a pot of water to boil, dropped the cactus in with some garlic cloves, salt and pepper, cilantro leaves and for about 30 minutes had a lively simmer going. Drain and then they’re ready to use. Roberto did warn that you have to boil first because they’re a bit slimy, like okra. It’s true, I found, though not quite that bad, more like an aloe plant. If I were to eat an aloe leaf this is how I imagine that would be. The drained nopales was soft, the texture and smell reminded me very much of a boiled green pepper. Not bad just kind of plain. I think the appeal for nopales is that it is healthful but yet plain tasting so that it takes on the flavor of whatever you’re cooking.
Roberto recommended frying the nopales with beans such as pintos. So I heated a splash of olive oil in a pan. Then added the cactus (trying to pick out the soggy cilantro). After frying for about 5 minutes I threw in some minced garlic and red pepper strips along with juice of half a lime, a pinch of salt & cayenne pepper, 3 shakes each of cumin & chili powder. Then I dropped in a can of pinto beans (drained and rinsed of course) A little more lime juice, 3 twists of black pepper and 4 heaping spoonfuls of salsa and you’re ready to go! Naturally, it goes without saying to add cheese. I served it over rice with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro on top.
It was pretty good. Good enough to give it another try. The next go around I sauteed onions and garlic in a hot pan then added some peppers. Next in went the nopales and lime juice with a can of black beans. Of course cheese and a cilantro garnish topped it all.
I think the concept is fairly simple: boil first for about 30 minutes til the sliminess is out and then you can use it however. Oh, another thing I did with the cooked nopales was to add it to stir fry. That worked out really well but I would recommend being sure to cut it into thin strips and then it blends in nicely with your other veggies.
You should try some!