Tag Archives: cactus

Agave Beverage of Choice? Aguamiel, Pulque and Mezcal

Here we are in Oaxaca, Mexico, center of the universe for the cultivation, production, distilling and bottling of agave nectar we call mezcal.  Mezcal is hot. A hot commodity, that is.

I stand corrected! Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent. Thanks to reader Andrew for bringing this to my attention. I’ve changed the post title.

A local friend told me his uncle sold his espadin agave field for 40,000 pesos when it reached maturity after seven years. It takes a long time to make $2,200 USD equivalent here, even at today’s exchange rate. But, that’s a lot of lana (money) and a farmer is happy to hold this crop for a while. The price of agave piña has risen exponentially, 15 times greater than it was seven years ago, according to Alvin Starkman, operator of Mezcal Educational Excursions.

For the last week, I’ve been drinking a cup of aguamiel in the morning. Zapotecs in the know say that aguamiel has curative, medicinal powers and aids in daily digestion. I’m a believer.

 

Aguamiel is the sap that comes from the heart of the agave when you cut the top off.  Honey water. That’s what they call it, and it tastes like it. After one day unrefrigerated, it begins to ferment and after a few days will become pulque. An acquired taste. After four days of fermentation, you are drinking pure bubbling alcohol that goes from clear to cloudy. Some flavor it with fruit or oatmeal to sweeten the taste.

Last week, I tasted tepache in the Tlacolula market. (Find the stand next to the row of ice cream vendors on the rug sellers street.) This is pulque with fermented fresh pineapple. A half a cup before lunch and I needed the arm of a friend to steady me. But, it sure was tasty. In the U.S. with the absence of pulque, some tepache recipes call for beer and pineapple!

 

Which brings me to mezcal, the epitome of distilled beverage in these parts.

 

I am not even close to being knowledgeable, but I now have about 14 bottles of locally produced mezcal in my collection. I added the last six — plastic bottles, mostly with the Coke label, filled at the source — during a day-long mezcal education tour with Alvin Starkman. (Plenty of tasting, too.) Nine family members and friends joined me. Those who flew away, left with officially bottled and sealed beverages, thanks to Alvin.

It takes an education and time to understand mezcal and one-day is just the beginning. So is a collection of 14 bottles. Hardly enough to matter to the serious collector.

On the trip with Alvin, I learned that I like tepeztate and clay distilled espadin. Clay gives the mezcal the flavor of loam and fire. I used to really like añejo and reposado, and these are very smooth. Now, however, what tickles my nose and throat are the nuances of the herbs and earthiness of the wild agaves.

 

Stick your nose in the glass. Inhale. Get that full smokey aroma from the roasted-over-wood agave heart (called piña or pineapple) into your lungs. Then sip. Just a little bit. Second sip, take a little more. You’ll see that what might have felt harsh to your throat at first is now subtle and delightful.

 

Each type of cactus will make a different type of mezcal. Maybe it’s an espadin distilled with a turkey breast (pechuga de pavo) hanging over the copper pot. Now, there’s a flavor worth trying. Is it fermented in oak, pine, a bull skin, plastic or stainless steel, and for how long? This impacts the flavor. Is it made from a tobala, Karwinskii or madrecuixe agave. Are fruits or poleo (wild mint) added for flavor? And what about that worm?

 

And what about the microclimates and soil types? Yes, the same agave will produce a different taste with a variation in soil temperature, altitude, and whether the field is shared with weeds or with squash and beans, and when it was last plowed.

 

Whether you live here or are visiting, mezcal is worth knowing about. It is an ancient artisanal craft on par with rug weaving, natural dyeing, clay making and more recently wood carving. Getting out to the palenques on country back roads is a unique experience.

 

Meeting the men and women who grow the agave and distill it is even more amazing. Many live very simple, humble lives and their production is small. They may not be certified but what they make can be every bit as delicious.

 

When you go to the source, you are able to buy, too, at a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle in the city. But, it’s not really about price, it’s about the adventure!

Mezcal Factoids, thanks to Alvin Starkman:

  • No 2 batches of mezcal is the same
  • Mezcal improves with age
  • 95% of tequila is made from blue agave in Jalisco, Mexico
  • In the State of Oaxaca there are about 8 species of agave used to make mezcal
  • Each of these species has as many as 20 sub-species resulting in many flavor profiles from just the varietal of the plant
  • On the other hand, while tequila has different flavors resulting from different influences, only blue agave can be used to achieve them
  • While most tequila is made with 100% agave, it can be made with as little as 51% agave bsed sugars. Read the label carefully, especially the more popular commercial brands made in the most industrialized way.

 

  • True artesanal mezcal uses natural yeast in the environment
  • Gusano worm in a bottle of mezcal changes the flavor of the spirit significantly, while some stil use it as a marketing tool
  • Most artisanal agave grows without irrigation
  • The most accepted theory is that the Moors brought the distillation process to Spain, and the Spanish brought it to the New World where they found agave

 

A Few Mezcal Resources:

  • Mezcal Educational Tours
  • La Mezcaleria — a new favorite, where to taste/buy aguamiel, pulque and artisanal mezcal — on the Macedonio Alcala walking street in the first block beyond Santo Domingo Church on the right
  • Las Mezcalistas — Susan Coss and Max Garrone, consultants and aficionados, talk about all things mezcal on their blog

 

 

Note: Most of these photos were taken on the trip with Alvin Starkman. Others were shot during an independent adventure I took with my son, sister and brother-in-law to San Juan del Rio the week before.

 

What Ants Don’t Like: Cactus

It’s la guerra de hormigas, the war of the ants. For several years now I’ve tried to grow lime, avocado and fig trees, and Bougainvillea with varying success. Mostly, not.

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The chapulines (grasshoppers) love these plants, too.  Both the ants and the grasshoppers consume large quantities of beautiful leafy green.  The local antidote is to tie a plastic bag tightly around the trunk of the tree or bush to keep the ants from invading and then pray. Since chapulines fly, we just wait for the season to pass, water regularly and hope the plant will not die.

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That’s why I’m starting a cactus garden.  No one likes those prickly, spiny barbs that protect the cactus from predators.  That’s why I asked friends if they would like to bring cactus starts from their own plants as a housewarming birthday gift to help me get my cactus garden going.

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That’s why I especially asked Josefina to bring me a cutting of her big, beautiful geraniums whose leaves are so pungent that anything that crawls keeps its distance.

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The rare and prickly Biznaga cactus

Some of these cactus are becoming very rare, like the beautiful bulbous Biznaga and the tall, graceful Gar Bii Dauu (a Zapotec word for this rare cactus from the Central Valley of Oaxaca).  Others are found in the countryside growing wild and can be easily transplanted.  Just break off a spear and stick it in the ground.  Cactus know where they belong. Here in the dry earth of Oaxaca.

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Yesterday morning after planting the starts into pots a huge, gunpowder grey cloud rose up over the mountains from the east.  By mid-afternoon a huge rain descended upon us and gave these new starts a proper watering.

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For now, the war is over and I win.

Thanks for the succulent succulents, for joining me in celebration, and for making my gardening life easier:  Soledad, Ernestina, Lupita, Tom, Jo Ann, Lupe, Daniel, Josefina, Magdalena, Rosario, Janet, Jan, Annie, Roberta, Lynda, Stephanie, Rafaela, Mariano, Luvia, Samuel, Fe y Lola, Omar Cha San, Janetita, Lori, Shannon, and Martha.

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Mexican Flag Nopal Cactus Salad or Nopal Ceviche Recipe

Here in southern Mexico nopal cactus is part of the landscape.  It is good to eat, too.  Very nutritious, high in vitamin C, experts say it has other health benefits like reducing cholesterol, controlling diabetes, and preventing hangovers.

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Plus, it’s that stunning visual treat of Green, White and Red, symbolic of Mexico and her flag.

Since I live in the campo, nopal cactus is abundant.  A friend brings me a small package of baby-size paddles periodically and I also buy them in the village market.  I just planted some Opuntia ficus-indica next to the casita.  You stick the mature paddle about 2″ into the earth and it becomes a fence or sustenance.

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I sometimes add Julienne or diced nopal to a vegetable soup stock for flavor and thickening.  It has a consistency like okra.  The process I use below gets rid of the slime.

I call this Nopal Ceviche because the cactus is “cooked” in salt and lime juice. No heat necessary.  In fact, this way, the nopal retains its crunchiness and healthfulness.  Believe me, you will love it.  The trick is to find small nopal paddles in the U.S.  I’m lucky.  I get mine already de-spined and cleaned.

Mexican Flag Nopal Cactus Salad or Nopal Ceviche

  • 15-20 small cactus paddles, about 4″ long and 2″ wide
  • 3 large plum tomatoes
  • 4-6 young onions, small
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 T. sea salt
  • juice of one large lime
  • 1/4 c. EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • optional:  3 T. diced cilantro and the flesh of 1 small avocado, diced

Nopal cactus paddles:  First slice the paddles lengthwise into approx. 1/2″ cuts. Then, cut crosswise into 3/8″ to 1/2″ dices.  You should have about 1-1/2 C. of diced nopal. Put into bowl.  Sprinkle with sea salt.  Set aside for 20-30 minutes.

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Tomatoes, Onions, Garlic:  Wash and clean the tomatoes.  (Here in Oaxaca, I clean tomatoes, and all vegetables, by immersing them in a bowl of purified water into which I have added three sprays of biodegradable anti-bacterial disinfectant.) Dice tomatoes using a serrated knife into 3/8 to 1/2″ pieces.  Add to a second bowl. Keep the juice.  Dice onions to same size. Add to tomatoes.  Gently smash the garlic cloves with side of a chef’s knife or Chinese cleaver.  Peel skin.  Dice into 1/8″ cuts. Add to this tomato/onion mixture.  Set aside.

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Rinsing the Nopal:  Here in Oaxaca, in fact all of Mexico, we use purified bottled water.  I use this to rinse the nopal after it has “cooked” in the salt.  You won’t have to do this in the U.S.  I add water to the nopal, stir, and pour the water out through a colander.  I do this 4 times until the thick, mucous-like water begins to run clear and thin.  Shake the colander to release all the liquid.  If you wish, pat the nopal dry with a paper towel.

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Combining Ingredients:  In a large bowl, combine the rinsed nopal with the tomatoes, onions, and garlic.  Toss.  Add the fresh squeezed lime juice.  If you want it less tart, reduce the amount of juice.  Taste.  Add more salt if needed.  Add olive oil, and stir.  Now, you can add the cilantro and avocado, if you like.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Will hold for 24 hours covered in the refrigerator.

Serve with fresh tortillas or crispy tortilla chips.

Serves 6.

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Crunchy, No-Cook Nopal Cactus Salad with Fruit and Sprouts: Healthy, Fresh, Fast, Easy

My sister Barbara and I were in Puebla, Mexico recently and during our three-day stay we ate at El Mural de los Poblanos Restaurant three times.  We can’t get enough of Chef Lizette Galicia’s good food.  We each have a favorite salad there.  Barbara loves the fresh nopal cactus tossed with tomato, onion, cilantro, queso fresco, radishes and little slices of fresh serrano chiles. I love the sunflower sprout salad tossed with toasted pecans, sunflower seeds, radishes and a light olive oil and lime dressing.  Everything goes crunch.   Be patient.  There is a recipe and photos below!

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This week I bought three nopal cactus paddles at my organic market, spines and all.  I buy them in the Teotitlan del Valle market already trimmed, diced and waiting to be cooking.  Those spines pricked me in the market and the check-out clerk had to cover her hand in a plastic baggie.  Today, I put on my thick rubber dishwashing gloves to handle them.  It was much easier than I thought.  With paring knife in hand, I scraped off the spines and trimmed the edges.  Facile.

Based on the ingredients in my kitchen and Chef Lizette’s method for preparing perfectly crunchy, delicious nopal, here is my recipe I know you will find tasty.  It is a merging of these two salads we love, a blend of nopal and sunflower sprouts.

Norma’s No-Cook Nopal Cactus Salad with Fruit, Sprouts, Seeds

Ingredients (Norma’s Innovation)

  • 3 cactus paddles, cleaned and diced
  • 2 cups fresh sunflower sprouts, washed, dried
  • 1/4 c. sunflower seeds
  • 1 small romaine or bibb lettuce, washed, dried, torn into 1-2″ pieces
  • 8 strawberries (mine are organic, small, flavorful), whole
  • 1 medium mandarin orange, peeled, segmented
  • 1 mango, ripe, seeded, cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 1 T. coarse sea salt
  • 2 T. vinaigrette salad dress (scratch or bottled Cesaer)

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Method (attributed to Chef Lizette Galicia, El Mural de los Poblanos)

  1. Clean the cactus paddles.  Here is a link to how to do it.
  2. Put the diced cactus in a small bowl.  You should have about 3/4 to 1 cup.  Add coarse sea salt.  Stir.  Let sit for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the diced red onion to the cactus.  Stir.  Let mixture sit while you prepare the other ingredients.
  4. Wash and dry lettuce and sprouts.  Put into mixing bowl.
  5. Soak berries in water for 2 minutes with 1 T. of white vinegar to clean. Drain. Dry. De-stem.  Add to salad.
  6. Add mandarin segments to salad.
  7. Prepare mango by cutting it in half along the seed plane.  Score each half as if it was a tic-tac-toe board in 1″ cubes.  Fold the skin under and peel flesh from skin with paring knife.  Add to salad.
  8. Go back to nopal cactus and onion mixture.  Turn out into a mesh strainer.  The mix will be slimy like okra.  Run under cold water for 5 minutes or until the water is clear.  Taste for saltiness.  If too salty, continue to rinse.
  9. Drain cactus and onion well over a bowl.  Put bowl in refrigerator for 10 minutes until mix is cold.  Add to salad.
  10. Toss salad well with sunflower seeds.  Dress and serve.
  11. Serves 4.
  12. Enjoy!

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The health attributes of nopal cactus is legendary. Years ago, Andrew Weill, M.D., exclaimed that by eating nopal cactus you would get more vitamin C, reduce cholesterol and add fiber to your diet.  Health experts say it also reduces blood sugar to help keep diabetes under control and is great for weight loss.  Lore has it that it can prevent a hangover and control hypertension, too.  Let’s eat more nopal!   Just be careful not to prick yourself :)  

I am planning to make this again next weekend for the TMM-Day of the Dead Photography Workshop 2012 Reunion.  I’ll be writing more about that. Suffice it to say, seven women in the workshop last fall connected and wanted to get together again.  They are coming to North Carolina from all over the U.S.

 

Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden: Rooted in Cultural History

Rather than give you another review of Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden, I thought I would share this excellent article recently published in Garden Design Magazine. It has lots of photos of this remarkable space.  Thanks to Mary Ann Walsh who follows this blog and shared the link with me.

Check the Garden for availability of guided tours in English, usually available Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m.  You can only enter the garden as part of a guided visit which lasts two hours.

You can see some of the same design elements in this garden that recur in some of the more recent renovations — the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and the Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo funded by the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation.

When Alejandro de Avila B. returned to Oaxaca after completing his PhD at University of California at Berkeley, he became the director of the Ethnobotanical Garden and then later, curator at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.  He continues to have an important impact on the development of arts and culture in the city and is an extraordinarily knowledgeable resource.