Sonoran 101 Summer Session

Explore easy Sonoran cooking during our hot Baja Arizona summer.

July 11, 2016

Issue 19: July/August 2016Sonoran Skillet

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.

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Chiltepin Blended Hot Salsa/Taco Sauce

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.

Chiltepin Blended Hot Salsa/Taco Sauce
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Chiltepin Blended Hot Salsa/Taco Sauce
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Instructions
  1. Put the water and garlic in a blender and blend to purée. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until well combined.
  2. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving to let the flavors meld.
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Pico de Gallo Salsa 

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.

Pico de Gallo Salsa
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Pico de Gallo Salsa
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  1. Combine ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate before serving.
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Chunky Guacamole

One avocado per person is a good general rule for serving size.

Chunky Guacamole
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Chunky Guacamole
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Instructions
  1. Run a knife along the outside parameter of the avocado, starting and ending at the stem. Twist to separate the two halves. Squeeze both halves like you’re juicing a lemon to extract the fruit into a bowl. Discard the pit.
  2. Pour the lemon juice on top and smash it into the avocado with a fork. Do the same with the salsa, salt, and cheese and mix until well combined. Serve immediately.
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Pickled Red Onions 

Pickling softens the onion flavor while giving them a bite of vinegar. You can try these on top of everything you eat.

Pickled Red Onions
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Pickled Red Onions
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  1. Bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Put the onions in a nonreactive (glass or ceramic) lidded jar. A Mason jar is perfect for this. If using glass, put a metal utensil in the empty jar first so the heat doesn’t crack it.
  2. Remove the boiling vinegar from the heat and pour it over the onions so that they are covered, adding a little more water if needed.
  3. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
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Baked Carne Asada and Guacamole Tostadas

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.

Baked Carne Asada and Guacamole Tostadas
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Baked Carne Asada and Guacamole Tostadas
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  1. For the baked shells: If using fresh, soft tortillas, spray them with a little olive oil and bake them for 5-8 minutes on each side or until crispy. They will curl up a bit at the edges. This is fine. Let cool.
  2. Layer each ingredient on top of the tostada shell. Start with guacamole, then add the warm carne asada, shredded cabbage, pickled onions, salsa, cheese, and radishes. Serve with additional toppings on the side.
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Carne Asada

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.

Carne Asada
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Carne Asada
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  1. Light the grill and prepare the meat while the coals are heating up. If you are not in the mood to grill, or if it’s too hot outside to consider cooking over a fire, you can also use a grill pan inside on the stove over medium-high heat.
  2. Brush both sides of the meat with oil using a pastry brush, then sprinkle generously with salt and achiote powder. When the coals are hot, grill the meat for 3-5 minutes on each side. The steaks should be medium to medium-well and charred on the outside. Remove from heat, and let the steak sit for 10 minutes.
  3. Slice the steak into thin strips, then dice the strips into small chunks. Pan-fry the chunks in a large, lightly oiled skillet (preferably cast iron) or in a comal for 2-3 minutes until hot and a little bit crispy on the edges.
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Nopalitos Chopped Salad 

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.

Nopalitos Chopped Salad
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Nopalitos Chopped Salad
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Instructions
  1. If you are using fresh nopales, simmer the diced pads in a nonstick covered pan over low heat with a sprig of cilantro and a pinch or two of salt. They will start to release a slimy substance, but don’t worry; it will absorb as the nopalitos cook. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally until all of the liquid is absorbed, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
  2. Place all of the salad ingredients except for the radishes and avocado in a large bowl and toss gently with a rubber spatula to combine. Divide onto serving plates and arrange the avocado and radishes around the edge and on top of the salads. Garnish with a bit of crumbled cheese.
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