These days it seem like the world has gone just plain crazy for Baja cuisine. The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio – these are but a few from the 4th estate that have lined up to gush over chefs and restaurants that are giving Baja – heretofore best known to outsiders as a totally rad surf scene dude – a bona fide “food scene”. So while it was the surfers who first made the terms “firing” and “shredding” famous in Baja (all surfspeak for surfing really well) it’s the chefs who are breathing new life into the terms in the culinary revolution that is sweeping the peninsula.
But what exactly is it that the chefs are firing and shredding? Of course there’s the bounty from the two seas, and all that great produce from the organic farms that populate the region. But most of Baja is desert and when you look out at it, it can seem kind of desolate, maybe a little forbidding, definitely thorny. What’s there to eat? Turns out, quite a bit (if you don’t mind getting your fingers pricked)!
Take the pitaya. The Baja peninsula is covered in this cactus and Chef Dany of Santo Vino/Hotel California likens the fruit of this plant to a red kiwi. He loves to cook it up with ginger and butter to make sauce for his Cabrilla (sea bass), and he’s also found that it makes a zingy vinaigrette for his salads. Our local ice cream stores in Todos Santos and La Paz report that pitaya ice cream is a perennial best-seller, notwithstanding the fact that the pitaya fruit is disgustingly healthy, packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants and Vitamin C. In fact, Juice Generation, a chain of smoothie bars in New York City, is promoting the pitaya as “the next big superfruit”, following in the footsteps of pomegranates, mangosteens and acai.
The tuna, or prickly pear, is the fruit of the nopal cactus, another ubiquitous Baja dweller. While Chef Dany likes to use the prickly pear for his dynamite fish salsas, and others like to pair it with tequila for a zingy barbeque sauce, Chef Rick Bayless likes to make Fresh Prickly Pear Ice as a refreshing dessert, and many folks in Baja share this enthusiasm for sweets made from tunas and regularly cook up prickly pear jelly, prickly pear syrup and prickly pear candy. Like the pitaya though, the tuna is ridiculously healthy, being high in magnesium, taurine, Vitamin C, calcium, potassium and antioxidants.
The leaves or paddles of the nopal are another great staple of Baja cuisine. Sergio Jáuregui (yes, our very own Sergio of Todos Santos Eco Adventures) likes to make what he calls nopal “quesadillas”. He cleans the paddle, grills it on both sides, then melts his favorite cooking cheese onto it – usually Oaxaca or Manchego – and fries it up. Delicious! (In that deep-fat fryer / comfort food kind of way.) Chef Dany’s favorite way to eat nopal paddles is equally tasty (and far more healthy): he puts it raw in salads with cubes of onion, tomatoes, local fresh cheese (queso fresco), parsley and cilantro – magnifique!
There are many more cactus plants from the Baja desert that make great eating, including the biznaga – which many chefs include in their chiles en nogada – and yucca, whose lovely white flowers make a great stir fry in Chef Dany’s wok.
But the real test of any Baja food is: can you make a margarita with it? And for all of our featured cacti here – the prickly pear, the pitaya, the biznaga and yucca – the answer is a resounding YES! Just swing by Santo Vino or the Hotel California some evening and prepare yourself for a most delicious treat (and don’t be afraid to try it at home either!)
Chef Iker Algorri of Café Brown likes to use a plant local to Todos Santos – damiana – to make his world-famous Brown-Garitas, a sure crowd pleaser:
Blend it up, serve with love and enjoy! Oh, and damiana is widely considered a potent aphrodisiac so best to enjoy your Brown-Garitas with friends!
If you’d like to learn more about cooking with Baja foods please contact us about our Cooking Adventures Week here in Todos Santos. It features fun, informative classes with both Chef Dany and Chef Iker, as well as lots of time in the glorious nature of Baja, checking out the bounty of the ocean and desert.
Thanks to Janine Wall for her help with this article.
© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2012