I’m from Ohio. A lot of what is considered standard in Baja Arizona recipes was foreign to me when I moved here nearly 25 years ago. I never knew I could eat cactus. I’d never heard of chiltepin peppers or even carne asada. The only taco shells I knew were corn, crunchy, fried, and came out of a box. Taco meat was ground beef seasoned with a pouch of McCormick seasoning. I still love those tacos, but as I watched and researched and ate a lot of the local cuisine, I’ve expanded my horizons a bit.
I learned that our hot, dry, low-desert environment influences not only the crops grown, but the way we eat. It’s perpetual summer, so dishes tend to be lighter, with more fruits and vegetables. Beef and wheat are abundant because they thrive here.
The foundation of Baja Arizona cuisine is based on certain standard dishes, modified and expanded on by individual cooks. This article highlights a few of the recipes that are the building blocks of our distinctive local cuisine, including chiltepin salsa, pico de gallo salsa, chunky guacamole, and carne asada.
You can serve any of the first four recipes on their own, or combine them to use as ingredients in other dishes, such as the carne asada and guacamole tostadas featured. I’ve also included my recipe for a Chopped Nopalitos Salad for a complete summer meal.
These recipes are just starting points. Many families and restaurants have their own version of these Sonoran classics, so feel free to alter them and make them your own.✜
Jackie Alpers is a food photographer, recipe developer, and author of Sprinkles!: Recipes and Ideas for Rainbowlicious Desserts. Visit her recipe blog, Jackie’s Happy Plate, to follow her culinary adventures as a Midwesterner transplanted to the Sonoran Desert.
Chiltepins grow wild in parts of Baja Arizona. The chiles are the size of a pea and very hot. They are thought to be the oldest species of chile peppers. A little goes a long way, so if you don’t like it hot, cut the chile by half (or even two thirds), even though there’s only a tablespoon in this recipe.
I should probably call this Salsa Fresca because pico de gallo also refers to a salad of fresh fruit and/or vegetables served with chile, lime, and salt. But I’ve gotten in the habit of calling this type of salsa, pico.
The key to pico de gallo salsa is the ratio of tomato to onions and chiles. I prefer four parts tomatoes to one part onion, and one small serrano chile. Get the best tomatoes you can find. Mealy tomatoes make boring pico.
One avocado per person is a good general rule for serving size.
Pickling softens the onion flavor while giving them a bite of vinegar. You can try these on top of everything you eat.
This makes one tostada—serve one or two per person. Lay out the ingredients for a tostada bar or serve them prelayered. I used La Mesa Tortillas’ jalapeño tortillas from their shop on East Broadway, as well as prebaked corn tortillas made by Charras Tostadas Horneadas, which I found at Food City.
Beef is a staple of Sonoran food because of the large amount of cattle ranches in the area. We are fortunate to have a variety of grass-fed ranches in Baja Arizona. Carne asada means “grilled beef,” and there are a million ways to make it. This recipe is for the chopped variety, similar to what you’ll find at local taco stands and trucks. Achiote molido is ground annatto seeds. It adds a subtle smoky flavor and it’s available at most local supermarkets.
Flour or corn? Though Sonora is known as a wheat-growing region, it’s also influenced by the proliferation of corn in our society, so typically both corn and flour tortillas are offered at meals.
Nopalitos, which are made from the pads of the prickly pear cactus, are a little scary to eat at first. Based on the name alone, I figured there was a pretty good chance that a stray spike would poke me in the mouth. But that wasn’t the case.
Although you can harvest nopales, you can also buy them; typically, the pads, also called nopals, come pretrimmed. When I picked up a package at Food City, some nice person had removed all of the needles in advance. Even so, I examined them closely before chopping them up, and declared them smooth. If you can’t find fresh nopals don’t fret! Nopalitos, the diced and cooked version of nopals, are available in jars at most supermarkets.
Nopalitos are lauded for their nutritional benefits, especially their ability to help control blood sugar. Serves 2-4.