Although my family is not Catholic, growing up in Mexico it’s impossible to escape its religious festivities and traditions. I especially gravitate towards those with important culinary implications, and Lent fits the mold perfectly. Known in Mexico as Cuaresma, it brings forth specials at the grocery stores, markets, bakeries, and pretty much every restaurant and take-out spot. While an emphasis is placed on seafood dishes, veggies have a huge place in cuaresma recipes, especially because they fit onto every budget. For me, cuaresma dishes don’t represent a commitment to any faith-induced diet but an opportunity to prepare tasty, inexpensive dishes that go past the usual meatless options.
Canned fish are popular amongst Mexicans since they are very cheap and versatile. During Lent, bakeries feature flaky empanadas de atún, filled with canned tuna cooked Spanish-style with onions. garlic, tomatoes, capers, olives, and parsley. Canned tuna is also used in croquetas, mixed with leftover mashed potatoes, shaped into croquettes, rolled in bread crumbs and fried. These can also be made with sardines, another classic Lent staple in Mexico. These golden treats spell childhood comfort food for me and, accompanied by a fresh salad, make a satisfying and affordable everyday dinner.
We use many meat substitutes, but not in the form of tofu, soy chorizo, or texturized vegetable protein. We use real vegetables, ones that have a firm texture and can serve as a substitute for any meat in a variety of dishes. Mushrooms, verdolagas, and nopalitos are amongst the most common. Recently, I got a call from my friend Dipak whose family own the Whip-In in Austin. He wanted to add nopalitos to one of his special menu items, which we calls Beeryani (instead of biryani, get it? He uses different local beers in them), but he had no idea how to cook them. I explained the process of boiling the sliced pads for about 10 minutes with a pinch of salt and baking soda, and an onion slice, then rinsing them thoroughly under cold running water to remove most of the slime. He had no idea. I am glad we talked. His resulting MexIndian dish, made with fresh amberjack, zatar spice, organic carrots, coconut milk and Jester King‘s Boxer’s Revenge Farmhouse Provision Ale, was to die for, and proof of the versatility of this humble ingredient.
Here is a quick recipe for one of the most popular dishes.
- 3 cups diced nopales, cooked and rinsed as described above
- 1 finely chopped white onion
- 2 chopped ripe tomatoes
- 1-2 serrano chiles, finely chopped (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- juice of 1 fresh lime
- 1/4 teaspoon crumbled, dried oregano
- salt and pepper to taste
Toss nopales in a salad bowl with the other vegetables and the cilantro. Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, salt and pepper, and pour over all. Toss to blend well. Garnish with crumbled queso fresco if you wish. You can eat this as is, inside a warm corn tortilla, or atop a crunchy tostada, with a cold beer on the side.