An Unusual Vegetarian Lunch | Mexico | Living in Mexico

An Unusual Vegetarian Lunch

Our good friend Anamaria, originally from Monterrey, served us a lunch of quesadillas, which in their most basic form consist of tortillas folded over cheese and heated until the cheese melts. Restaurants often include additional fillings, renaming the dish (and raising the price); for example, quesadillas de pollo (chicken).

Anamaria's contained vegetables not usually served in the U. S.: Nopal, Flor de Calabaza, and Huitlacoche.

Nopales are young, tender ears of prickly pear cactus. The spines are shaved off with a sharp knife, the remaining pads are diced and then sauteed with seasonings. They have a slightly grassy flavor and an almost slimy texture, similar to okra.

Nopales01

Nopal pads are usually sold fresh in Mexico. I've seen them in many supermarkets in California, but not elsewhere. They're also available canned.

Nopales02

For me, nopales make a nice change-of-pace vegetable, but they'll never replace fresh asparagus.

Flores de calabazas—squash blossoms—are one of my favorite vegetables. Our cook, Rosario, gets them from women who come by the house with baskets or five-gallon plastic paint buckets full of them.

Flor01

Rosario makes soups and omelets with squash blossoms, and—my favorite—quesadillas de flor de calabaza.

Flor02

I've eaten flor de calabaza and nopal without hesitation ever since we first came to Mexico. Huitlacoche, however, is another matter. In the U. S., huitlacoche is a disease called corn smut. It's a kind of fungus, although to me it looks like mold.

Hu03

The fungus infects corn kernels, growing inside them and causing them to swell. The spores are black and huitlacoche, when cooked, makes an inky sauce. Farmers deliberately infect corn plants to produce the fungus, which is considered a delicacy.

Hu04

After eating deep fried conger eel spine in Japan, I've become even less squeamish about unusual foods, so I spooned a little salsa verde onto my huitlacoche quesadilla and bit into it. Think of a sweet corn and mushroom sauté. That's what it tasted like. Delicious! I ate two of them.

In California, any one of these quesadillas would have been exotic. All three in the same meal would have been overwhelming. Living in a new culture, though, the unusual becomes commonplace.
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