Friday, October 3, 2014

Sensory Evaluation - Napol

The food I chose to try for my sensory evaluation is a napol.  It's sometimes referred to as the prickly pear cactus.  I chose it because my favourite cuisine is Mexican, specifically Yucatean food.  I've been to the Yucatan many times and I've always passed up any dish that's made with napol, I suppose I didn't find it appetizing in any regard, probably because of what it looks like in it's raw state.

I walked up to Kensington Market to an awesome Latin American shop called Perola.  I frequent this place quite a lot as they sell a ton of Mexican products that are hard to find in Toronto.

It smelled like like a version of the fiddle head.  I cut a small piece off and the smell completely changed into what reminded me of aloe vera and chlorophyll, it was also a little slimy.  I thought, wow, am I really going to eat this?  It looks like a cactus pad. It's very prickly with many tiny thin thorns.  

I learned very quickly that napoles should be picked up by the stalk end of the pad. I also quickly learned that the big needles hurt and draw blood where the little ones are almost invisible and sting quite a bit. Handling a nopal incorrectly really made me wonder exactly what the heck the guy who first thought to eat one of these was thinking (Tequila!). The tweezers are mandatory. Trust me.

I carefully cleaned the pad which is basically removing the thorns off of both sides of the pad, cutting the spiny edges off and trimming the stalk. Mistakes had consequences. (see tweezers above)

Once it was cleaned up I cut it into strips, I tasted a piece and was surprised that is wasn't completely foul!  The mouth feel was at first a bit slimy, then a bit chewy, then slightly mushy not completely unlike a BigMac.  It was similar to bland, unseasoned fiddleheads in flavour initially but then went bitter and a bit sour. In it's raw state it screamed for vinegar which made me think i'd like to try and pickle it.  Although I'd have to research that, I'm not sure about pickling such slimy items.

I researched how to cook it, simmered it in salted water with a clove of garlic, in hindsight I would have left it a little more al dente and sauteed it with some minced garlic but keeping it as native as possible was the goal here.

Once it was simmered I tried it again before building it into the dish I was preparing with it. After blanching it was a completely different experience. It had a much sweeter and delicate flavour and had the texture of cooked zucchini. If I had not gone for a purist approach and added garlic and maybe some shallots to a saute I think they would have been rather delicious! It was startling how different they ended up being after lounging in some boiling water.

Well my foray into the culinary wilds yielded some interesting results. I learned that raw Nopales are like a party in your mouth and everyone is throwing up. My palate cannot handle slimy at all. Sour and bitter on their own are hard to pass but slimy is just flat out not going to happen. The strange thing is that after they were cooked I actually liked them quite a bit and with a different process would actually use them again. They definitely have potential. Once that initial slimy and bitter flavour are boiled out of it, the earthiness of the plant really shines through and with the right idea could be a great addition to tacos, salsa, or even a Mexican style burger.

Cooking the Nopales was really a great experience. I started with a raw product that I didn't like but sticking with it I ended up with another great option for an interesting and versatile vegetable. This little succulent showed me that the road to culinary knowledge is full of surprises. And thorns.

The flavors I seem to gravitate to are more on the savoury and spicy level.  Chipotle in adobo I cannot get enough of.  I do occasionally have a sweet tooth but when I bake I almost always reduce the amount of sugar (not when I make ice cream though.).  

The recipe I made to incorporate the napol was Hurache con Carne Asada  Mexico City Style Corn Tortillas with Steak (adapted from Saveur).  Yup, the napol is buried under that awesome cotija cheese!  I also meant to cut up some tortillas into strips and fry them for a crunchy garnish on top of the tortilla.  I will be posting a blog link to my adaptation of the recipe shortly, with my instructions on how to make the oblong masa tortillas called 'sandals'.  Stay tuned and while you're at it crack open a Corona!

How much do people in Mexico like lime?



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