Petitchef

Roasted Tomatillo Soup with Nopalitos & Mushrooms, and Daiya Cheddar Quesadillas

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 The weekly routine here in Chico isn?t complete without a bike ride downtown to the Thursday night market. Cherries and new red potatoes are coming into season, joining the mountains of strawberries, fresh herbs and flowers, Asian greens like bok choy and Chinese broccoli, and more. One of the new items last week - new to me, at least - were cactus paddles (nopales or nopalitos in Spanish.)  Here they are now:
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 Whenever I have a question about traditional Mexican cooking or ingredients, I turn to my copy of Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen, one of a handful of cookbooks I packed for the move. Bayless recommends roasting or grilling cactus paddles, and the recipe I knew I needed to try was a tomatillo soup with mushrooms and nopales. My version was a quick and simple adaptation, mostly because I lacked a few traditional herbs and chilis.

The cactus was surprisingly simple to prepare, especially since the vendor had removed the thorns. All I did was rinse it, cut it into chunks about an inch square, and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I roasted the pieces for about 20 minutes at 375 F, in the same pan as about a half dozen husked and rinsed tomatillos. After about 10 minutes the nopales and tomatillos began to soften and release their moisture, and I added about a half dozen peeled garlic cloves to roast with them for the final 10 minutes.

After roasting, the tomatillos were soft and lightly browned, and the nopales were tender and juicy. They have a taste all their own, but I was reminded of a cross between roasted green peppers and good sour cucumber pickles, with a twist of lime juice.

Reserving the nopales in the roasting pan, I removed the tomatillos and roasted garlic and let them cool for a few minutes.  They're then pureed in the blender with a little vegetable stock and water, and salt and pepper to taste. The resulting soup base was tart and tangy, with warmth from the roasted garlic and a pleasingly creamy texture.

Everything else came together in minutes. About a cup of sliced cremini mushrooms were sautéed in olive oil and a little salt in the soup pot for a few minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant. Add the tomatillo soup base to the pot, and stir in the roasted cactus paddles, keeping the soup over medium heat just until warmed. I mixed in a little fresh cilantro at the end, and garnished it with red pepper flakes and more cilantro. If you have fresh limes or vegan sour cream on hand, they would be naturals here too.
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 The soup was tangy and richly flavorful on its own, but pairing it with simple quesadillas made it special. I stuffed corn tortillas with Daiya nondairy cheddar cheese, and warmed them in a dry pan for just a few minutes, until the cheese melted. I?m pretty sure Daiya is the cheese substitute many vegans have been waiting for - it tastes great, and most importantly it melts.  I've been using it everywhere.

The flavor combination of cheddar quesadillas with this soup was strikingly similar to one of my favorite dishes at Mexican restaurants - cheese enchiladas with green sauce. Dipping the quesadillas into the soup brought back fond memories of those meals.
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