I love chicharrón en salsa verde, but when I first moved here the dish didn’t appeal to me. Drown crunchy chicharrón in salsa? And then what? Wait, the point is soggy chicharrón? I was too scared/weirded out to try it until early this year, when Ruth and I stopped at a roadside stand in the mountains outside Puebla, the kind with the hand-painted signs and the little stovepipes billowing smoke.
The chicharrón, which I’d never had for breakfast, bubbled in a cazuela and sent up reams of steam. I ordered some and the texture was surprisingly delicate, like a fluffy cooked egg. The acidy tomatillo sauce settled into its nooks and crevices, while the smoky taste of bacon lurked. All in all, it was outstanding.
I was looking for an easy party dish to make last week and Lola suggested chicharrón en salsa verde con nopal. I’d never made it, but she said you make your sauce and throw in your chicharrón and cactus y ya. Done.
She was right. The dish didn’t take much time, it was hearty and satisfying and easy to transport. We added lots of boiled nopal and chicharrón with plenty of meat on it, known here as chicharrón carnudo. (I told the butchers at the market: “Deme chicharrón bien carnudito!” I have no idea if that’s an albur or not.) Simmered everything in a big pot of salsa until the chicharrón was just soft, then scooped it into warm tortillas. The taste was just like I remembered — spicy and acidy, with just the right amount of pork flavor.
The biggest compliment I got was after the party. A friend told me over Twitter that he fed his Mexican aunt and grandmother my guisado, and they loved it. Let me repeat that: A Mexican grandmother loved my cooking. Now I just need to learn how to identify an albur and I will be that much closer to being Mexican.
Chicharrón en salsa verde con nopal
Serves 10 to 12, or more
Note: You can halve this dish if you want or make even less. As long as you have the salsa base, it’s just a matter of tossing extra ingredients into the same pot. (I’ve thought of adding peas or green beans in addition to cactus, although that’s not traditional and Lola looked at me funny when I suggested it.) If you can’t find fresh chile de árbol — a long, skinny green pepper — serrano will work. I also used the smallest tomatillos I could find, which are sweeter and more flavorful than the larger ones.
I bought WAY too much chicharrón because I thought it would reduce to a third of its size. It doesn’t — it reduces somewhat but also soaks up a lot of liquid, so if you put in too much you won’t have any salsa left or room for extra veggies. I have adjusted the recipe below to reflect the amount I should have bought.
If you have extra chicharrón left over, it’s great with pico de gallo, or to bring to a party in place of chips. Chicharrón = super popular Mexican party food.
This dish also reheats beautifully and will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for at least a week.
4 pounds/2 kilos of tomatillo, husked
1/2 lb./250g fresh chile de árbol (see note), stems removed
1 medium white onion + 1/4 chunk of an additional white onion
4 garlic cloves, peeled
6 pounds/3 kilos fresh cactus paddles (about 20 large paddles), de-spined and washed
2 tablespoons lard
1 1/2 to 2 pounds/1 kilo chicharrón carnudo (chicharrón with lots of meat bits), broken into pieces
12 stems cilantro, chopped
Salt to taste
Rinse your tomatillos well under running water, removing any dirty bits. They should still be a little sticky — this doesn’t mean they’re dirty, it’s just the tomatillos’ natural sugar.
Working in batches (or one large pot if you have one) place half the tomatillos and chiles in one pot, and half in the other. Cover with water. Add half an onion and two garlic cloves to each pot. Simmer on medium to medium-low heat until the tomatillos and chiles have softened and turned a muted green.
Remove the tomatillos, chiles, onion and garlic to a bowl and reserve about 6 to 8 cups of your soaking liquid, which you’ll use to thin out your sauce later.
Fill a blender jar halfway with the hot tomatillo-chile-garlic-onion mixture. (Important note: if you fill the blender completely with hot contents, the lid may blow off. Be careful and tread lightly here. You could also let the items cool and go have a glass of wine.) Add one ladleful of tomatillo water and blend on low; then slowly blend on higher speeds until the sauce is smooth. Pour into a bowl and repeat until you’ve blended all of the sauce.
Once the sauce is done, it’s time to work on the cactus.
Cut the cactus into 2-inch pieces and place in a pot covered with water. Bring to a boil, lower flame and simmer until the pieces are tender and a muted pea-green color. Strain and let drain in a colander while you fry the sauce.
Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and add the lard. When it’s melted and hot, add the 1/4-piece of onion and fry until dark golden-brown and bubbly on all sides. Remove onion pieces from the hot oil using a slotted spoon. Quickly pour in your salsa (be careful as it might spit), stirring constantly so it doesn’t stick and burn.
Once sauce starts to boil, add chicharrón pieces in batches.
Then add the cooked cactus to the pot, and 5 cups of the soaking liquid. Stir to combine. The dish should be saucy but not watery and thin — if it’s too thin, raise the heat and bring to boil to reduce it. I tend to use a lot of liquid since we’re at such a high altitude and it evaporates quickly.
Taste for salt — I added about 1 teaspoon or a little more — and bring sauce to a gentle boil, again stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick. The dish is done when the chicharrón has softened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, taste again for more salt and stir in chopped cilantro. Serve with warm tortillas and beans.