Tag Archives: New Mexico Native Plant Society

NATIVE PLANTS. DURANGO, CO

For the past few days we have been in Durango, Colorado for the annual meeting of the New Mexico Native Plant Society. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? The story goes that nearby Farmington, New Mexico sits in the desert and oil patch of northwest New Mexico with limited native plants. Durango feels isolated from the rest of the Colorado Native Plant Society but has an abundance of native plants. The two cities decided to merge their membership in New Mexico. On top of that, Durango lies at the base of the San Juan Mountains, arguably the most beautiful range of the Colorado Rockies. The mountains are filled with old-growth forests, spectacular wild flowers, and stunning trails. Besides, Durango is a quaint gold and silver mining town from the 1880s with a lot of beautiful Victorian buildings. It is the center for river trips down the Animas River, hub for mountain bikers, and the terminus of the famous Durango and Silverton Rail Road, a vintage narrow-gauge train that takes passengers on a scenic trip through the San Juans to another old mining town, Silverton. With all of that going on, it was not surprising that the meeting sold out well in advance.

At these annual gatherings, Susan always goes to the meetings and field trips. I never do either one. I usually strike out on my own for a private photo shoot. This year was no different except that I didn’t wander that far afield. Because of a crash of my Adobe Lightroom software, I wound up having to post some images from my iPad and iPhone. Apologies for the quality.

The first night we ate at the Mahogany Grille of the Strater Hotel. This landmark was built in 1887 and has been lovingly and beautifully preserved. We were looking forward to our experience, because the restaurant promised fine dining in an antique setting. We were not disappointed with the room, but the dining did not really fulfill the concept of fine dining. For starters, the place was jammed with tourists in short shorts, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Durango is a classic summer tourist town overwhelmed by huge extended families of  all ages, sizes, dress, and demeanor.

The host sat us at a very private booth in the back of the room, so that took care of the crowds problem. The menu sounded very interesting with bruschetta and various toppings, elk chops, lots of grilled meats, corn chowder and what sounded like tasty salads. The kitchen gave it a good effort, but my glazed salmon came out dry and a little burned on the bottom, and Susan’s Colorado trout (That should be local and straightforward) came out so dry that Susan had to ask for some melted butter as a sort of sauce. All in all, a bit of a disappointment, but still a pleasant experience in a great old hotel.

The next night was another story. We were staying in the student apartments at Fort Lewis College, located on a mesa top with the San Juans as a backdrop. A lovely, if Spartan, setting. Because of the long day of walking behind us, we decided to try the college’s “All You Can Eat Buffet” at the student center. The choices included the mashed potato bar with cheese, sour cream and bacon bits, the salad bar, pizza, and the night’s special: tamale pie with grilled chicken. I had forgotten what dorm food can taste like. This brought back memories of my youth. We did not go back for seconds. In fact, we didn’t finish firsts. But the high school and college students who were participating in summer programs seemed to love it. Of course, their favorite was the pizza.

Here are a few of my food images from our two dining-out experiences as well as some shots from my trip along the route of the D&SRR and the San Juan Mountains.

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NATIVE PLANTS AND GORDITAS

This last week we drove down to El Paso, Texas, for the New Mexico Native Plant Society annual meeting. Yes, El Paso is in Texas, although there are many who wish it were in New Mexico: many of the residents of the city as well as many Texas politicians. El Paso is in the same time zone as New Mexico, an hour out of sync with almost all of Texas, and the population is decidedly different from those of Dallas and Houston. On top of that, it’s over five hundred miles from El Paso to Houston and San Antonio, and only thirty miles to the New Mexico border and a little over two hundred miles to Albuquerque. But the main reasons that El Paso is part of the New Mexico Native Plant Society is that the ecology (read desert) of El Paso is similar to much of New Mexico; both are on the edges of the Chihuahuan Desert and so the plants are very similar, unlike the live oaks and Spanish moss of East Texas.

We lived in El Paso for a number of years, so the meeting was an opportunity for us to renew old friendships, visit our old neighborhood, and enjoy some of the good regional food of the Border.

Susan went to meetings while I drove around old haunts and took naps, but both of us took time out to eat at two of our old-time favorites, the Little Diner in Canutillo, Texas, and the H & H Car Wash & Coffee Shop in downtown El Paso. We ate at a trendy new restaurant in the refurbished warehouse district. We didn’t much like it, so it will go nameless. But we also enjoyed drinks and snacks in the Liquids Bar in our hotel, a wonderfully revnovated derelict of a hotel that had sat vacant for many years after having a moment of glory in the distant past when Elvis Presley performed there.

Here are a few images of native plants from New Mexico that you might enjoy.

The Little Diner is a local institution. It is extremely hard to find in a residential area of the little town of Canutillo. It sits right next to a coin laundry, so you can do your washing while you are having lunch. Unfortunately, the original owner has died, and her daughter now runs the place. Some of our El Paso friends reported that it had gone down hill, but we had a great experience. The specialty of the house is gorditas, fat little masa pillows deep-fried, slit open, and stuffed with seasoned beef, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. You add the salsa to your liking. They are so unlike the pale copies sold at Taco Bell that you wonder how they share the name. They come three to a plate with beans and a salad, so even a big man should not go away hungry. To my knowledge, gorditas are fairly localized to this part of the border. I have never seen them on Tex-Mex menus in the rest of Texas, and they are not a part of the cuisine around Santa Fe.

Gorditas at the Little Diner

Gorditas at the Little Diner

H & H Car Wash is legendary. It was awarded the 2001 James Beard Award for American Classics. Not bad for a hole-in-the wall with a counter and about 10 stools along with two booths. Never mind that you can get your car washed and filled with gas and also get your shoes polished while you wait your turn for jumping on one of those stools. The day we visited, there were heavy rains, decidedly unusual for El Paso (It’s in the desert, remember?) So the car wash didn’t have much business, and as a result the coffee shop was also not crowded. Being able to speak Spanish helps when you order. Actually, many of the staff speak English, but here you are on their turf, and they don’t cut a lot of slack unless it is clear that you need HELP.

I ordered what I always order, huevos rancheros. Their version is unique, and I favor my own version, but it is still delicious and, anyway, that’s the reason I came to eat. Susan got the eggs and sausage. Since it was Saturday morning, we could have also gotten a bowl of menudo that was heating in a big pot on the back of the flat-top. We both passed, but that’s another story.

The night we ate at the bar, we ordered queso fundido (“melted cheese”). The first time we ever had that dish was nearly thirty years ago in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. It was so good with freshly made corn tortillas that it has been a favorite of ours ever since. The bar’s version came with crostini, cutting across cultures, but it was delicious. I will give you a recipe in a subsequent post.

Queso fundido at Liquids

Queso fundido at Liquids

All in all, we had a great visit, and enjoyed some food that we can’t get locally.

 

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NOPALES – WHO WANTS TO EAT CACTUS?

Unless you are from Mexico or the American Southwest, you may have thought that cactus, the big paddles with long razor-sharp stickers were just a sign that you are in the desert. I’m talking about prickly pear with the  regional name, nopal (singular), nopales (plural), or nopalitos (diminutive), and the scientific name, Opuntia sp. (There are lots of different species.) If that’s the case, you will be surprised to learn that prickly pear with its various parts is popular not only as food but also as drink. The cactus can be eaten raw, but most recipes call for cooking. Cooked prickly pear is said by many to taste like okra. That may be a good or bad thing.  Some people eat large quantities of Opuntia because of supposed healing powers for all sorts of illnesses. There is some evidence that eating cactus can lower the blood sugar, but the effect is not strong enough to serve as a treatment for diabetes.

Prickly pear in bloom

Prickly pear in bloom

After flowering in mid- to late-summer, prickly pear sets on fruits on the edges of the paddles. These fruits are also called tunas and are so highly prized that night-time harvesters will strip them from plants growing in the median of streets of many towns and cities. Peeled and eaten without chewing (the seeds can easily break a tooth), tunas substitute for candy because of their sweetness. They can be mashed into pulp and juice for drinks, cocktails (cactus margaritas are popular in some Border bars), syrup, or even dessert.

The key to success in turning the cactus into something you can eat is to get rid of the spines. Sometimes hungry  cattle in dry climates will turn to cactus for food if there is nothing else to eat. The spines can damage bovine intestinal tracts or even blind a cow that gets the spines impaled on a cornea. Those spines can do the same thing to humans. To avoid this, some cooks use a blowtorch to burn off the spines. This approach has the disadvantage of potentially burning the paddles. Others use very sharp knives (along with sturdy gloves to protect hands) to cut off the spines and the thin outer layer of the pad. The easiest way to deal with the problem is to buy prepared nopales in the grocery store.

One of my friends, Jim Hastings, has developed an interest in Southwest native foods and foods prepared from native plants. This has led him to develop a number of his own recipes and to conduct cooking classes on preparing an entire meal from cactus.

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to attend one of Jim’s classes. For that session his menu included Bean Soup with Nopales, Jicama and Nopalito Salad, Nopales and Green Chile Tart and Cheese Cake with Prickly Pear Dessert Topping. The dessert topping can go on cheesecake, as Jim demonstrated, ice cream, pound cake, or whatever you fancy.

The dessert topping requires prickly pear jelly and optional prickly pear syrup. You can order those online from Cheri’s Desert Harvest

In this post, the recipes are Jim’s; the images are mine. If you want to contact Jim Hastings for more information, his internet address is: jimhastings@elp.rr.com

 

RECIPES

Bean Soup with Nopales

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dry pinto beans
  • 6 cups water
  • 3 strips thick sliced bacon cut crosswise into ½ inch slices
  • Additional vegetable oil and butter if needed
  • ½ medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 cups nopales, diced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste
Bean soup with nopales

Bean soup with nopales

Sautéing nopalitos

Sautéing nopalitos

Method

  1. In a large pot, soak the beans overnight in the water. Set aside.
  2. In another large pot set over medium heat, render the bacon to release the fat but do not crisp. Remove the bacon from the pot.
  3. If needed, add oil and butter to the bacon drippings in the cooking pot and heat over medium flame. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Do not allow to burn.
  4. Add the garlic, and stir for about 30 seconds. Then add the reserved beans and water. Bring to the boil. Then reduce to the simmer and cook until the beans are tender. Add chicken broth and keep warm
  5. In the meantime, melt oil and butter in a large sauté pan. Add the nopales and sauté until the moisture is completely gone. Be careful not to burn the nopales
  6. Add the nopales to the beans, stir in chopped cilantro, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve in bowls with salsa or pico de gallo if desired.

Jicama and Nopalito Salad

Ingredients

  • 2½ cups nopalitos cut into 3/8 inch dice
  • ½ pound jicama, peeled and cut into 3/8 inch dice
  • 2 red jalapeños chopped into fine dice. Remove seeds and ribs for milder flavor
  • 1 yellow bell pepper seeded and cut into 3/8 inch dice
  • 2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into 3/8 inch dice
  • ¼ cup chives finely chopped
  • ¼ cup mint leaves finely chopped
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves finely chopped
  • raspberry vinaigrette, commercial or homemade

 

Method

  1. Bring to small pots of water to the boil. Add nopalitos to one of the pots, return to the boil, and boil for 30-45 seconds or until the water starts to thicken. Drain the nopalitos and add to the second pot of water, repeating the process. Drain and rinse with cold water. Do not overcook
  2. In a large bowl, combine the nopalitos, jicama, jalapeños, bell pepper, cucumber, chives, mint, and cilantro.
  3. Toss with raspberry vinaigrette.
  4. Serve on fresh greens.

Nopalito and Green Chile Tart

Ingredients

  • 1 package frozen puff pastry
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup nopales cut in ¼ inch dice
  • 1 cup roasted, peeled, and seeded green chiles cut into ¼ inch dice
  • 3 cloves garlic peeled and minced
  • 12 ounces whipped cream cheese
  • 1½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, finely crumbled
  • ½ cup roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped red bell pepper or pimento

 

Method

  1. Thaw puff pastry according to package instructions. There should be two sheets.
  2. In a small frying pan, heat the olive oil until it is barely shimmering. Add the diced nopales and sauté until olive-green and any slime has evaporated. Remove from the heat and cool.
  3. Stir together the nopales, green chiles, and garlic.
  4. Unfold the two sheets of puff pastry in a 17 x 11 1 inch jelly roll or sheet cake pan. Moisten the seam between the two sheets with a little water and press together to sea. Trim dough to fill the pan using any scraps to fill the sides.  Score the dough lightly around the edge of the pan, about ¼ inch from the edge of the pan
  5. Stir the crumbled oregano into the sour cream Then spread the cream cheese mixture evenly over the dough within the score line.
  6. Spread the nopales, chile, and garlic mixture over the cheese. Then sprinkle with the red peppers
  7. Bake at 400° F (204 ° C) for 10-12 minutes or until the crust puffs and is a golden brown, Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes. Cut into 2 inch squares and serve.

Cheesecake with Prickly Pear Topping

Ingredients

  • 16 ounces sour cream
  • 4 ounces prickly pear jelly
  • prickly pear syrup (optional)
  • 1 cheesecake, homemade or purchased

 

Method

  1. Stir together the sour cream and prickly pear jelly until smooth and evenly blended.
  2. Spread on top of cheesecake
  3. Drizzle with syrup if desired.
  4. Serve

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