The symbolism of meat-eating is never neutral. To himself, the meat-eater seems to be eating life. To the vegetarian, he seems to be eating death. There is a kind of gestalt-shift between the two positions which makes it hard to change, and hard to raise questions on the matter at all without becoming embattled.
~~ Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter
I have committed to join the #meatlessmonday movement in an effort to find a middle ground on the issue of vegetarianism. Nopalitos and Red Chile Rice Bowls was the end result of a couple of days playing with nopales – the edible pads of cactus plants most commonly used in Mexican cuisine. I grew up in southern California – the oldest daughter of adventurous cooking parents. 🙂 I remember having nopalitos burritos after church on Sunday evenings. Nopalitos is a dish made with diced nopales. I have only cooked them a couple of times due to the fact that I had no interest whatsoever in breaking them down! However, I shopped at a Mexican market in Roma, Texas recently, and lo-and-behold I found the most beautiful diced, fresh nopales in the produce section. I had no idea what I would do with them, but I had to have them… If you’re completely unfamiliar with nopales, they are nutrient rich, and a good source of fiber and antioxidants. The flavor is a bit like a tangy asparagus or green bean with a slightly chewy texture. They can be eaten raw in salads, but hold up really well when cooked.
I Googled “nopales” and “Rick Bayliss,” knowing I’d come up with a winner. 😉 I landed on his Nopal Cactus with Caramelized Onion, Guajillo Chile and Fresh Cheese. I have followed Rick Bayliss (Food Network) for years, and know his reputation for creative and (mostly) healthy Mexican food. This recipe was exactly what I was looking for! I made the nopalitos according to the recipe, and served it with exceptionally fresh corn tortillas (from the same market), crumbled cotija, and cilantro. The tacos were fabulous, and reminded me of my childhood… I served black beans and rice as a side dish, and when some of the nopalitos dropped into the black beans and rice, the idea for this recipe was born. It was definitely going on the menu for #meatlessmonday the very next day! Topped with a runny, poached egg, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying vegetarian dish.
Nopalitos and Red Chile Rice Bowls is not a complicated dish. The only step that takes a bit of time is pressing the puréed red chile mixture through a strainer. I will be experimenting with using ground red chile in place of the whole pods to add a quicker option to the recipe. My work flow goes something like this: Start the caramelizing of the onions. I like a lot of caramelization, and increased the time of Rick Bayliss’ recipe to about 20 minutes. I toasted the chiles and garlic, puréed them with the canned tomatoes, and strained them. I then added the nopales to the onions, and cooked the requisite time – before and after the addition of the red chile purée. While the nopalitos cooked, I started the black beans and rice. The nopalitos need 20 minutes with the red chile purée which is exactly the required amount of cook time for the black beans and rice. 🙂 While both dishes are cooking, chop cilantro and crumble cotija for garnish, and set a pot of water on to boil for the eggs. You should be able to get this on the table in about an hour. I actually doubled the amount of red chile, garlic, and canned tomatoes, thus having enough purée for a second meal – tacos one night and Nopalitos and Red Chile Rice Bowls another night!
Mark and I felt this recipe best paired with a beer. Stay away from beers with high alcoholic content, excessive bitterness, and high carbonation. All 3 will intensify the spiciness and may throw it out of balance. I would opt for a well-balanced, slightly malty beer like a bock, a brown ale, or even a porter. For more on pairing beer with Mexican food, see How to Pair Beer With Mexican Food. What is your “go to” beverage with Mexican food? I rarely have had a glass of wine that complemented Mexican food; I’d love to hear your experiences!
A healthy vegetarian dish that features caramelized onions, nopales and red chile over top of black beans and rice. The dish is then garnished with a runny egg, crumbled cotija, and cilantro. Buen provecho!
15 minPrep Time
45 minCook Time
1 hrTotal Time
- 3 dried guajillo chiles, seeded and torn into flat pieces*
- 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 1/2 14.5-ounce can diced tomato (preferably fire-roasted)
- 1 pound diced nopales*
- 3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
- 1 large white onion, sliced 1/4-inch thick
- A little sugar, if necessary
- 1 teaspoon olive or coconut oil*
- 1 shallot (or 1/2 small red onion), finely chopped
- 3/4 cup long grain rice
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons red chile powder*
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1 15 ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 teaspoon salt
- a few grinds pepper
- 4 eggs, cooked any style (we like poached and runny)
- cotija, crumbled
- cilantro, chopped
- * See Notes
Prepare the guajillo chile base. Heat a medium (10-inch) skillet over medium. Toast the chiles by using a metal spatula to press them against the hot surface for a few seconds, until very aromatic, then flipping and pressing the other side. Roast the unpeeled garlic, turning from time to time, until soft and blotchy-black in spots, about 15 minutes. Cool and peel off the papery skin. Break the chiles into smaller pieces and combine in a blender jar with the garlic and the undrained can of tomatoes. Blend until smooth—this will take a minute or so because of the tough chile skins.
Clean and cut the cactus. Holding a paddle with a pair of tongs, trim off the edge that outlines the paddle, including the blunt end where the paddle was severed from the plant. Slice or scrape off the spiny nodes from both sides of the paddle. When all paddles are cleaned, cut them into squares that are a little larger than ½ inch.
Prepare the dish. In a large (4-quart) saucepan, heat the oil over medium. Add the onion and cook, stirring regularly, until richly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the cactus, cover the pan and cook 5 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently, until all of the cactus’s sticky stuff has evaporated and you hear the cactus sizzling in the oil. Immediately, set a medium-mesh strainer over the pan, pour in the chile mixture and press it through. Stir everything together and let it cook until the chile mixture has thickened to the consistency of tomato paste. Stir in ½ cup water, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and season with salt (usually about 1 teaspoon) and a little sugar if necessary to balance the chile’s natural astringency.
Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallot or red onion. Saute until translucent. Add the rice, cumin, and red chile powder, and saute a couple of minutes more.
Add stock or water, black beans, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.
Cover and cook 19 minutes.
Fluff with a fork just before serving.
Cook 4 eggs any style. This is a personal preference. We like runny eggs, so I typically baste or poach them.
Divide the black beans and rice among 4 shallow bowls or plates. Top with the nopalitos and red chile. Place 1 egg on top of each serving. Garnish with crumbled cotija and chopped cilantro.
Guajillo chile may also be called "cascabel." I would also suggest New Mexico red chile. The process of toasting dried, whole chile and garlic, then straining the puree is a bit tedious. It's delicious, though, and worth the trouble. I do plan to try substituting ground red chile powder and roasted garlic as a time-saving option.
Nopales are prepared nopal (cactus pads). There is no substitute. Nopalitos is the name for a dish using nopales.
I use coconut or olive oil for this dish. You can use your preferred vegetable oil.
I keep New Mexico red chile powder in my well-stocked pantry. Feel free to substitute your favorite.
Nutrition estimate (using MyFitnessPal) - 470 calories, 25 g protein, 56 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat