Today we’re inaugurating a new type of “EAT” post here on Culture Curious. Since we’re traveling and having new food/cooking experiences, we’ll be periodically profiling different dishes that we’ve cooked and enjoyed. These posts won’t contain recipes (this isn’t Culicurious, after all), but they will explore ingredients, cooking techniques, and some of the history/culture of the dishes and ingredients we feature. So without further ado, let’s explore the first dish we’ve enjoyed: sopa de nopales.
Sopa de nopales (literally translates to “cactus soup”) is the first foreign dish that we cooked here in D.F. (aka Mexico City). Jeremy is a soup lover, so we decided to explore the soup realm before anything else. Sopa de nopales was the most foreign and exotic seeming soup I encountered on a list of Mexican soups by Saveur. When I mentioned the idea, Jeremy’s ears perked up, and I realized this was definitely how we’d begin.
A sopa de nopales recipe generally contains cactus pads, tomatillos, white potatoes, onions, garlic, chicken stock (or alternately, bouillon cubes and water), pork rinds, and small, hot pepper such as a jalapeño or a Serrano (we used Serrano). The recipe we used came from Saveur, and while we remained true to the ingredients they used, we varied our cooking method a bit. Before we talk cooking method, let’s take a closer look at some of the more interesting ingredients in this tasty dish.
The cactus used in this soup are the leaves of the prickly pear cactus, which grows throughout Mexico. They’re commonly referred to as nopal and are used in a wide range of dishes from soups to salads to jams to egg dishes. We opted to purchase our nopales trimmed of the tough outer rim of skin, and of course, any nopales you’ll find at the grocery store or in markets will already be cleaned of their prickly spines. Fun nutrition fact: nopales are rich in manganese, vitamin C, and magnesium.
Most Americans have at least heard of tomatillos, even if they haven’t actually eaten them. They look like small, green tomatoes covered in a papery husk. We opted for small tomatillos, less than an inch in diameter, because they’re young, tender, and have a sweeter flavor. Tomatillos originated here in Mexico and have been around since the pre-Columbian era (the time prior to the arrival of Europeans). When buying tomatillos, look for a bright green color like you see below. We also prefer to buy them with the husks still attached so that we can see the overall quality of the fruit, and the husks help keep the tomatillo protected and cleaner, though you should still wash tomatillos before using because they do have a slightly sticky residue coating the fruit. Don’t worry – that’s normal!
Next, let’s talk pork rinds. Depending on where you’re from you may know them as chicharrón (chicharrones), cracklins, or even grattons, as us Cajuns call them. Whatever you call them, they’re simply fried pork skin, which is delicious. Pork rinds are part of this soup in two ways: stirred in for body, flavor, and texture and then also added to the top as a crispy garnish. Next time we make this soup, though, we’re going to crush the pork rinds that we mix into the soup. While the full-sized, ultra-hydrated pork rinds taste fine, they are a little chewy (akin to a large mushroom). We like the flavor they impart to the soup but could do without the chewiness.
In regards to cooking technique, the biggest way in which we departed from the recipe’s technique was by sautéing our onions, garlic, peppers, and even the tomatillos (just a bit) in advance. In our cooking philosophy, flavor is achieved in layers and by using the delicious power of caramelization, when possible. Therefore, we opted to sauté the seasoning vegetables first, instead of boiling them with the tomatillos. Further, we opted to not puree the seasoning vegetables and the tomatillos, as the recipe directs. We prefer chunkier soups so we happily kept everything intact. Remember, though, if you opt to sauté your vegetables and NOT puree as directed, you’ll need to finely chop the seasoning vegetables and quarter the tomatillos. And finally, the potatoes: we added those in at the same time as the nopales, which means they only cooked for 20 minutes total. Our potatoes were tender and delicious, and we’re not sure why the original recipe called to cook them for over 30 minutes. We prefer a bit of structural integrity in our potatoes, as well, so we didn’t peel them, as the recipe directed. In all, those are the main aspects of the cooking techniques with which we took liberty.
Finally, let’s explore how the final dish sized up, taste-wise. Overall, we were quite pleased with this dish. The nopales give the soup a body and consistency similar to what okra does as the thickening agent for gumbo. It’s what some would call slightly slimy, but we appreciate the weight that the nopales lend to the soup. It’s possible that if we’d opted to puree the seasoning vegetables and the tomatillos, this viscosity could have been concealed a bit better, but we don’t know for sure. The chunks of potato were delightful, and the thin slices of nopales were tender. The tomatillos gave the soup a bright, citrusy flavor that kept us going back for more. Combine all of that with the crunch of the pork rind garnish, and this was a highly satisfying soup. In all, we had six small portions that we ate for lunch. If you’re looking for heartier dinner portions, this recipe will yield four bowls of soup.
Sopa de nopales was a great place for us to start in our quest to explore and better understand Mexican cuisine. We’re glad we dove into the deep end and got over any “anxiety” we had about using something so foreign as cactus pads. Truth be told, it wasn’t that foreign of a taste experience, and the method by which this soup was prepared was fairly easy, as far as soups go. If you have access to nopales where you live, we highly recommend you try this dish. Expand your horizons and widen your experience with ingredients (after all, people eat all kinds of strange and delicious things), and you will reap the rewards with a tasty, satisfying soup. ¡Provecho!