Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tacos de Nopales y Verdolagas

This is a good time to harvest paddles off the nopal, while they are still fresh and tender.

I started this nopal several years ago from a paddle I bought in the food section at Berkeley Bowl. I just stuck the paddle in the ground and about a year later it started producing new paddles. I love the way people in Oakland grow nopales. More than a healthy, delicious food, the nopal is also, often, a work of art, sculpted at the hands of the gardener/artist over decades. My own nopal is still small by Oakland standards but I expect it to be at least 6 feet tall within a few years. When I choose which cactus paddles to harvest, I am mindful of the aesthetic choices I am making. With any luck, I will have a balanced, quirky nopal sculpture in the years ahead.

For the past few weeks, verdolagas (wild purslane) has been popping up all over Oakland and we have several patches growing in our own front yard. We've been eating the verdolagas raw in salads but tonight I wilted them on the grill, and it came out great.

These are the verdolagas growing as "weeds" in our front yard:

The way I like to prepare nopales is to cut them into thin strips and then remove the spines. I toss the strips with salt, pepper, and olive oil.

I love the taste of nopalitos cooked on the grill. I get my grill very hot and proceed to cook the nopales until they are charred on the outside and tender on the inside.

I served the nopalitos and verdolagas with hot corn tortillas, guacamole, lime, grated queso fresco, radishes, snap peas, and lettuce. I let everyone make their own tacos. Lil J—our 15 year old family friend—ate 4 tacos (so did I!).

Nopales and verdolagas are traditional foods of Mexican and indigenous peoples of the Americas. Both Ktrion and I grew up hearing about these foods; however, having been raised in the "hamburger helper" generation, we did not eat such foods on a regular basis. Now, of course, we realize the importance of reclaiming the old ways and we are trying to educate ourselves about traditional Mexican foodways.

An informative article in Mother Earth News describes the nutritional content of verdolagas as "...uncommonly good for you. It tops the list of plants high in vitamin E and an essential omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Purslane provides six times more vitamin E than spinach and seven times more beta carotene than carrots. It’s also rich in vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium and phosphorus.Omega-3s are a class of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. Your body cannot manufacture essential fatty acids, so you must get them from food. Unfortunately, the typical American diet contains too few omega-3s, a shortage that is linked to a barrage of illnesses including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. "

And, because wild purslane grows as a weed, all we have to be able to do is recognize it when it appears in our garden in early summer months. We don't have to buy it, water it, or even save its seeds.