Monday, May 31, 2010

Roasted Tomatillo Soup with Nopalitos & Mushrooms, and Daiya Cheddar Quesadillas

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 The weekly routine here in Chico isn’t complete without a bike ride downtown to the Thursday night market. Cherries and new red potatoes are coming into season, joining the mountains of strawberries, fresh herbs and flowers, Asian greens like bok choy and Chinese broccoli, and more. One of the new items last week - new to me, at least - were cactus paddles (nopales or nopalitos in Spanish.)  Here they are now:
 Whenever I have a question about traditional Mexican cooking or ingredients, I turn to my copy of Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen, one of a handful of cookbooks I packed for the move. Bayless recommends roasting or grilling cactus paddles, and the recipe I knew I needed to try was a tomatillo soup with mushrooms and nopales. My version was a quick and simple adaptation, mostly because I lacked a few traditional herbs and chilis.

The cactus was surprisingly simple to prepare, especially since the vendor had removed the thorns. All I did was rinse it, cut it into chunks about an inch square, and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I roasted the pieces for about 20 minutes at 375 F, in the same pan as about a half dozen husked and rinsed tomatillos. After about 10 minutes the nopales and tomatillos began to soften and release their moisture, and I added about a half dozen peeled garlic cloves to roast with them for the final 10 minutes.

After roasting, the tomatillos were soft and lightly browned, and the nopales were tender and juicy. They have a taste all their own, but I was reminded of a cross between roasted green peppers and good sour cucumber pickles, with a twist of lime juice.

Reserving the nopales in the roasting pan, I removed the tomatillos and roasted garlic and let them cool for a few minutes.  They're then pureed in the blender with a little vegetable stock and water, and salt and pepper to taste. The resulting soup base was tart and tangy, with warmth from the roasted garlic and a pleasingly creamy texture.

Everything else came together in minutes. About a cup of sliced cremini mushrooms were sautéed in olive oil and a little salt in the soup pot for a few minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant. Add the tomatillo soup base to the pot, and stir in the roasted cactus paddles, keeping the soup over medium heat just until warmed. I mixed in a little fresh cilantro at the end, and garnished it with red pepper flakes and more cilantro. If you have fresh limes or vegan sour cream on hand, they would be naturals here too.
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 The soup was tangy and richly flavorful on its own, but pairing it with simple quesadillas made it special. I stuffed corn tortillas with Daiya nondairy cheddar cheese, and warmed them in a dry pan for just a few minutes, until the cheese melted. I’m pretty sure Daiya is the cheese substitute many vegans have been waiting for - it tastes great, and most importantly it melts.  I've been using it everywhere.

The flavor combination of cheddar quesadillas with this soup was strikingly similar to one of my favorite dishes at Mexican restaurants - cheese enchiladas with green sauce. Dipping the quesadillas into the soup brought back fond memories of those meals.
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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Goodbye Fargo, Hello Chico

 I’m starting this post about changes with a final picture from my place in Fargo, North Dakota, which has been home for most of the past seven years. This is Maya, who I still call the puppy, though she turns three this summer. Time goes by a little faster every year. Maya’s chair was one of the last things we moved out of the apartment, and I think that’s when she sensed something funny was going on.

So what has been going on, and why did Maya lose her favorite nap spot? I have a new job, at Farm Sanctuary in California! This is something I’ve thought about for a long time, after interning at the California shelter two years ago, and visiting again for a couple weeks last spring. I was hired in March, but was grateful to have enough time to wrap things up in Fargo during April and spend time with family and friends before leaving in early May. I just finished my second week of work here - I’m a caregiver assistant - and I’m loving the job, which I expected.

I assume most of you are familiar with Farm Sanctuary, but if not check out their web site, which is linked here. The California shelter, with rolling hills and the Coast Range on the western horizon, is a beautiful place, and I feel pretty lucky every morning I go to work there.

Though it’s nice to be in northern California, leaving North Dakota was hard. Fargo is a wonderful place, and if you don’t believe me go visit sometime, though maybe not in January. The Fargo-Moorhead area has been showing up at or near the top of all kinds of livability and environmental reports in the past few years, and three major universities and significant communities of new Americans create a cultural atmosphere you might not associate with North Dakota. I don’t mean to go all Chamber of Commerce on you here, but I won’t leave Fargo without giving it a big hug. Fargo rocks.

Of course, I said my goodbyes to family and friends in person, so I won’t elaborate here. If you’re reading, thanks for everything, and I hope to see you out here sooner or later! I’m especially missing my 3-year old nephew Lucas, who has been my buddy in Fargo and an inspiration to all of his extended family. His attitude and energy light up wherever he is, and I hope to see him again soon.

I’m living in Chico, in an upstairs apartment in an older house. The neighborhood is full of huge shade trees, and I share a giant fenced backyard with my downstairs neighbors. There are dogs everywhere - woohoo! - so I couldn’t have hoped to find a better place for Otter and Maya.

From all indications so far, Chico rocks too. On Thursday nights throughout the summer there is a street fair/produce market downtown, that attracts big crowds of happy looking people. The fruits and veggies are abundant, varied, and cheap, so I’m already a big fan of the Thursday market after two visits.

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll remind you that this blog is usually only about food. So let’s get on with it. My cooking has been pretty basic so far, since I’m rebuilding my kitchen and pantry. In honor of simplicity and the Thursday market, here’s my Thursday Market Salad. Everything is fresh and local - avocadoes, phenomenal strawberries, walnuts, sweet peas, and spring greens including chard, spinach, and a few types of lettuce. The dressing is sherry vinegar, olive oil, black pepper, salt, and a little sugar.

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Here’s some nachos, with beans and guacamole. The chips are topped with Daiya cheese, which I’ll have more good things to say about in my next post.  Like I said, we're keeping it simple.

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 I can't break in the new west coast version of my site without a couple of pictures of Otter and Maya exploring their new environment.  I think they'll enjoy the break from winter, but it's a little harder to find open spaces nearby to run around off the leash.  I'm sure we'll figure that out soon enough.  Here's Otter looking for fish, or maybe at her reflection, in a Chico creek.

 One more of Otter and Maya for the road.  I think they like it here.

Thanks for making it to the end of a longer than usual post, but we had some catching up to do.  Speaking of, I'm looking forward to catching up with all of your amazing blogs that I've been following the last couple of years.  Until next time, goodbye from rainy NorCal!