It may look simple enough from the outside, but the Economic Shop in Maplewood is a hidden gem of South and Central American food.
It's only one small room, but the store packs a wallop of ingredients you can't find anywhere else. With more than ten hot sauces to choose from, the store is a great destination if you like spice in your food.
You can also find items like canned Spanish plums, beef or pork chorizo, gandules verdes (green pigeon peas from South America), sofrito, a staple in Latin American cooking as a tomato base, frijoles (beans) and much more.
I was especially excited about the Concha, a Mexican sweet bread with cinnamon topping. Oh, and the fresh cactus.
Fresh cactus, also known as nopales, is imported from Mexico, though the Economic Shop also sells it pickled. The nopal cactus is said to be extremely healthy. It's high in Vitamin C and contains antioxidants. When cooked right, it's also absolutely delicious.
The flat, round 'leaves' of the cactus are considered a vegetable, while the prickly pear part is a fruit.
The Economic Shop only carries the leaves, and long-time employee Gerardo Herrera said they come in with the spines still attached.
"I have to take a knife and cut them off. Sometimes I get hurt," he said, showing me the cuts on his hands to prove it.
Once the sharp spines are removed, Herrera puts about five cactus parts in a bag each and keeps them refrigerated for sale.
So what do you do with fresh cactus?
Herrera makes his version of a Salsa Mexicana with it (more commonly known as pico de gallo), though really, he said it's more like a fresh salad.
The 'salad' also contains fresh tomatoes and jalapeno, along with garlic and onion that's boiled with the cactus. He recommended also putting a few stems of cilantro into the water, making a quasi mini vegetable stock - the flavor from the garlic, onion and cilantro are infused into the water the cactus is cooking in.
You can add lime if you want, but Herrera said it's better without it.
If you want to go for the fresh salad/pico de gallo approach, here is Herrera's recipe:
Gerardo Herrera's Salsa Mexicana
5 cactus leaves, sliced into 1-inch slices
1 whole clove garlic
1/4 red onion, whole
1/4 to 1/2 jalapeno (depending on how spicy you want it), seeded and chopped
2 tomatoes, medium dice
4 cilantro stems, whole
Salt, to taste
Bring 6 to 8 cups of water to a boil. Put the garlic, onion, cactus and cilantro in and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cactus is tender. Drain and put in a bowl to cool in the fridge. Chop up the cooked onion and garlic, then mix all ingredients together. You can also cut the cactus into smaller pieces to make it more salsa-like.
I really wanted to make a blended salsa, so while I followed Herrera's instructions for boiling the above ingredients, I finished it in a blender with the tomatoes, 5 fresh cilantro leaves, 2 cloves of fresh garlic, an 1/8 of the raw red onion, the jalapeno, salt and pepper.
For dessert, I picked up a package of powdered coconut gelatin, which is nearly identical to jello except you make it with milk instead of water. You can get various flavors that use either water or milk at the Economic Shop.
Coconut Gelatin Dessert
1 6-ounce package coconut gelatin dessert
4 cups milk
Bring the milk to a boil in a sauce pot. Add the gelatin, stir until completely dissolved, then pour into a mold to completely cool in the fridge. Enjoy!