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TODAY

Sunday, December 15

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Airbags

There is a pattern which we've fallen into. We'll see a recipe that we want to try somewhere that involves a slightly unusual ingredient. But we don't write down what the recipe calls for, nor do we put the recipe in the "take to the grocery store" pile. But we go to the grocery store and see dandelion greens (for that soup) or fresh garbanzo beans (as mentioned on that food show) or cactus pads (for that salad recipe), so we buy the ingredient and take it home full of plans for an unusual dinner.

Then when we get home and look at the recipe we think, "Wow. That dandelion soup takes a long time and calls for a lot of things we don't have." So we improvise and move on.

So I should have known I was in trouble when I saw that Andrew had purchased nopales, otherwise known as "prickly pear cactus pads." There was a salad recipe in Saveur magazine. But we didn't have all the ingredients the recipe called for, so I put it off for another day and made something else for dinner.

Flash forward several days later and I find myself at a small grocery store not too far from my house. I'm doing the "what looks good" wander in the produce section when I come across the cactus pads. This of course reminds that not only do I have some at home, I still don't have the information on hand to make the dish. So I guess and pick up a few things and decide with a little creativity I can make this salad the centerpiece of a good meal.

To go with the cactus salad, I purchase ingredients to make cheese-stuffed banana peppers (aka gringo rellenos), black beans, and skirt steak.

Cactus Salad
This recipe is mostly taken from page 19 of the April, 2006 issue of Saveur Magazine. If you'd like the original recipe and don't have a subscription, send an email to cc@gapersblock.com and I'll send you the original recipe.

1 teaspoon of hot sauce
1/2 cup of sour-cream
1/3 cup of cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon of lime juice
1 pinch of ground cumin
Salt
4 medium nopales (prickly pear cactus pads)
1 small yellow onion which has been peeled and cut into quarters
1/2 yellow bell pepper
1 ripe avocado

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. While it heats up, add the hot sauce, sour cream, cilantro, lemon juice and cumin to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Purée until everything is finely chopped. Toss in the onion and bell pepper and pulse several times until the contents are throughly mixed but still slightly chunky. Pour this into a storage bowl. Use a towel to hold onto the base of the cactus pad while it is on a cutting service. Drag the blade of a sharp paring knife across the leaves until all of the "eyes" for the spines have been scraped off. Since there were so many spines on the very outer edge of the pad, I just cut it off. Rinse under cold water to remove any spines.

Once the water is boiling, add 3 tablespoons of kosher salt or 1-1/2 tablespoons of table salt to the water and place the pads in the water. Cover and let them boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Remove them from the water, but keep it boiling. Rinse them under cool water to help wash away the slime that builds up (similar to what you'd find in an aloe vera plant). Place the pads on a cutting board and cut cross-wise into 1/2-inch strips. Place these back into the boiling water and let it cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove the strips and rinse them in cold water again. Now add them to the dressing and stir to coat. Let this sit in your refrigerator for three hours or up to three days. Before serving, cut the avocado in half, discard the pit and the skin and slice the avocado finely. Add this to the salad, stir to coat and serve. Makes four small servings.

Cheese-Stuffed Banana Peppers (Gringo Rellenos)
4 large but straight banana peppers
1 5 ounce block of Queso Ranchero or Farmer's Cheese (this a fresh cheese that is slightly crumbly)
2 tablespoons of sour cream
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder

Cut about 1/2 inch from the stem edge of each pepper. Carefully use your fingers to remove the seeds and interior ribs from the peppers. Rinse them and pat them dry. (Banana peppers may not be as hot as jalepenos, but they'll still sting. Make sure to wash your hands really well before touching your eyes or any other very sensitive area of skin. Feel free to wear rubber gloves while doing this.)

Preheat your oven to 325° F. Place the round wheel of white cheese on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut the cheese into 1/4" chunks. Place this into a bowl and combine all of the other ingredients. Stir to coat the cheese thoroughly. Use a small spoon to scoop the cheese mixture into the peppers. Press firmly on the first spoonful to squish the cheese as close to the tip as possible. Continue until each pepper has been stuffed. Tear off a sheet of aluminum foil about 12 inches long and roll it into a loose tube or snake. Place it onto a cooking sheet and rest the top of each pepper on the aluminum foil. This will permit the cheese to melt and run to the tip without bubbling out of the opening. To make cheesey cleanup even easier, place either a small sheet of aluminum foil or parchment paper on the pan under the foil snake. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly. Serve immediately. Makes four servings.

Black Beans
1 tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil
1/2 of a red or green bell pepper
1 small yellow onion
1 teaspoon of cumin
1/2 teaspoon of coriander
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 can of black beans
salt to taste

This recipe is mostly taken from the side of a can of Goya black beans. However Goya calls for a packet of their "Sazón," which contains a great deal of MSG. You can make your own by combining the above spices along with some annato or turmeric for color.

Add the olive oil, bell pepper and onion to a saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently for about 5-7 minutes. Add in the spices and stir till everything is coated. Stir in one undrained can of black beans. Let them cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until they're warmed through. Taste and season with salt as needed.

Skirt Steak with Onions and Peppers
1 pound of skirt steak (or flank steak)
1 tablespoon of lime juice
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon of chili powder
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 bell pepper cut into strips
1 medium onion cut into half and then sliced

Cut off any large chunks of fat from the skirt steak. Slice the steak at a 45-degree angle into 1/4-inch strips. In a plastic bag combine the lime juice, vegetable oil, cumin, garlic powder, chili powder, ground coriander and salt. Stir to combine. Add the beef, pepper and onions. Seal and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Occasionally turn the bag and massage it to make the flavorings travel throughout the packet. Bring a heavy skillet to temperature over high heat. Add the contents of your pouch to the skillet and stir frequently until everything is cooked. This should take about 7-10 minutes. Add more oil as needed to keep things from sticking and burning. Taste at the end to determine if more salt needs to be added.

Now all you have to do is warm some tortillas (either corn or flour), chop up some more cilantro, chop up a lime into wedges, put some sour cream on the table and shred some cheese. Your salad, banana peppers, beans and skirt steak (you can substitute chicken or even seitan, of course) make for a filling dinner for four people.

Of course I recommend looking up the ingredients for a desired recipe before heading to the store, but I also suggest improvisation. You never know, your recipe may end up being better than the original.

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