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Villa Victoria, Naomi Andrade Smith's Food Notes
Villa Victoria
Food Notes

cactus salad with watercress, jicama and pomegranate

Nopales are part of Mexico's psyche.  The nomadic Mexica priests had a vision that wherever they came upon an eagle eating a snake while standing on a nopal (cactus), there is where they should found their nation.  That site is now Mexico City, the largest city in the western hemisphere.

The Aztecs cultivated nopales and ate them.  The Spaniards were introduced to them but still considered them a curiosity.  Fray Bernardo de Sahagún, in his General History of the Posessions of New Spain relates:

"There are some trees in this land which are called nopalli...This tree is monstrous:  the trunk is made up of its leaves, and the branches are also made up of these same leaves; the leaves are wide and thick, they have a lot of juice and they are viscous, the leaves have thorns...the leaves of this tree can be eaten raw or cooked"

Today nopales or nopalitos are scrambled in with eggs and chile; they are grilled and put into salads, they are served in fine restaurants and humble ones; they are used in soups and even tamales.  In 1998, on a trip to Xalapa, Veracruz, while we stayed with the Cano Family on Avenida Revolucion, I made several forays into the neighborhood and its environs.  Around the corner from Mercado Jauregui in Xalapa, Veracruz, some of the street vendors sell neatly stack perfectly cleaned green nopal paddles.  I saw one young man absent-mindedly picking each spine off by hand.  Another young woman sold them cleaned and whole, but she also offered the nopales diced with onions and garlic conveniently bagged and ready to take home and fry up.

When I was a teenager, my mother had a pomegranate tree which yielded a bountiful crop of beautiful, garnet-colored fruit every September.  My mother's preferred way of eating a pomegranate was standing over the kitchen sink with a dishtowel around her neck -- a bit of a messy proposition, but rewarding. 

When buying nopales make sure they are firm, unblemished and medium-sized.  To clean, spread a few thicknesses of newspaper out on a counter and lay one paddle flat.  With a paring knife slice the protruding spines off the nopal a few at a time.  Carefully push the spines off to one side with your knife and continue until all the spines are off.  Slice the perimeter of the nopal off and check again for any spines that may be clinging to it and remove them.  OR... buy a jar of already-cleaned and preserved cactus!

2 Bunches watercress, washed and dried
1 lb.  Jicama, peeled and cut into french fry-sized batons, salted
1 Cup jarred cactus strips, rinsed and cut into 1-inch pieces, dried and salted
1 Shallot
2 Cups unsweetened pomegranate juice (1/2 of a quart jar)
2 T Honey
1/4 cup Apple Cider vinegar
1/2 cup Olive Oil
Salt to taste

In a saucepan, place the pomegranate juice and the shallot and bring to a simmer.  Slowly reduce until it is about three quarters of a cup.  Let cool.  In a blender place the reduced pomegranate juice and shallot along with the vinegar and honey.  Buzz.  With the blender running, slowly add the olive oil in a stream until the dressing is emulsified.  Taste for salt.  Spoon over the arranged salad.

Serves 4-6.