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Mexican herbs and vegetables at Maxwell Street Market

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Mexican herbs and vegetables at Maxwell Street Market

RST | Aug 4, 2002 09:01 PM

In the spirit of VitalInfo's terrific posts on weekly offerings at the Farmer's Market (I enjoyed the one on "purple" specially), I would like to note down a few of the unusual herbs and vegetables that I have found at the Maxwell Street market and have learned to enjoy.

We Chicagoans should consider ourselves very lucky that these wonderful herbs-so essential a part of Mexican cuisine but virtually unknown to non-Mexicans north of the border-are routinely available. Many of these herbs are barely discussed in the standard Mexican cuisine references: it is as if the authors hesitate to mention anything that they know would be impossible to find. Yet these herbs have in the past few years become standard offerings in our city, and not just at the Maxwell St. market. They are now being distributed on an ever more extensive scale at several of our large supermercados. However, prices at supermercados (for instance at the excellent Supermercado Morelia on Clark just south of Howard) for obvious reasons tend to run about $1.00 more per bunch than at Maxwell Street.

Epazote (a digestive and indispensable for proper refried beans), verdolaga (purslane) and chamomile flowers (for tea) are well-known enough and there are innumerable wonderful recipes using these herbs in the great cookbooks (Diane Kennedy's, Bayless', Zarela's etc). For this post, I would like instead to put together the little bit of the research I have been doing on three specific herbs: the huanzoncle, papalo and quelite.

These are herbs that are all currently available at the market (I did not see huanzoncle today or last week, but they were available at Supermercado Morelia a few days ago). As the season progresses, we will see other items ("pipichas", "hierba de conejo" etc) slowly become available. Before leaving the verdolaga however, I would like to recall (as a digression) that we had lunch at Le Francais to say goodbye to the Liccionis the week (2 yrs ago?) they returned the keys and left that restaurant and the most stunning single dish on our tasting menu was foie gras garnished simply with a few leaves/paddles of purslane on top. The shocking contrast between the rich unctuous foie and the sharp, succulent, slightly bitter purslane has remained clearly etched in my mind since that day.

The papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) has got to be one of the most beautiful of all the culinary herbs. They were at their peak today and those who visited the market would have seen people carrying bunches of these (not bunched up but wrapped up like flowers, with the tender shoots open to the air) everywhere. There was a huge bunch of this sitting in a large aluminum bucket outside ";) the greatest taco stand in the United States ;)" serving (I think) as a decoration. The leaves tend towards a rounded shape, "shimmer" on the stems and are two shades of a pale bluish-jade green color on the two surfaces. They would certainly add a unique touch to a flower arrangement of pale pink old roses! The papalo (the name refers to "butterfly") loses its pungent aroma and flavor under heat and is best used as an element in a salad. It adds a distinctive flavor to salsas (perhaps in lieu of cilantro). It works wonderfully on its own (tossed for instance with some good olive oil) or in a mesclun with other bitter herbs. A mexican lady I was chatting with today suggested using it in a more Mexican salad with raw onions and perhaps small slivers of chile. I think that it would be worth the while to experiment a bit and try this herb out in recipes that call for (uncooked or lightly heated) watercress or sorrel as the flavor profiles seem to overlap at least in my mind. Papalo is $1 a small bunch at the market and I think either $1.99 or $2.99 at the supermercado.

I have been obsessed, totally obsessed of late with
the gorgeous huanzoncle (Chenopodium berlandieri). Huanzoncle is how I hear it but it has also been variously transcribed as guauzoncle (Diane Kennedy's first book), huauzontle (one of her later books), huanzoncle (Bayless), huauhzontle etc. The flower stalks (carrying little flower glomerules-like miniature broccoli florets spread out on a stalk) can be simply sauteed or (if you take care to remove all the woodier stalks) used in scrambled eggs. An even more spectacular use: there is a famous traditional dish associated with this vegetable which involves dredging and frying in a "cover" of an egg mixture (just like chile relleno). The "covered" (the Spanish word is capear = to "cape" or cover) huanzoncle is then served in a sauce of chile pasilla. To enjoy, the diner would have to pick off small stalks and pull it through the teeth as one would certain tougher "leaves" of artichoke. I have found the huanzoncle to be quite versatile and I have taken it to my favorite chinese barbecue house to be steamed and served with some oyster sauce: delicious! Unfortunately, as they were not available today, I could not verify the price but I think $2.99-$3.99 a bunch sounds about right.

Finally, we have the mysterious "quelite" (sometimes translated as "lamb's quarters"). Quelite is a generic word for "herbs" in Nahuatl and apparently there is quite a bit of confusion about just exactly which herb the word refers to. Different regions of Mexico use this same word to refer to quite a range of edible "weeds" that sprout up between rows of sustaining corn. In the central states however (and Chicago is immensely rich in immigrants from the Guerrero highlands, Michoacan etc), the word seems to refer specifically to a species of Chenopodium. I have put in an inquiry regarding this herb on the food board of mexconnect.com but have not received any definitive reply. The herb that is being sold as "quelite" at Maxwell Street (generally $2 for a huge bunch: they're large bunches bec they shrink down when cooked) is certainly identifiable as a Chenopodium species. There is some variation in flavor and persistence of flavor between the quelites of different stalls suggesting perhaps different seed sources and/or varieties/heritages, but we do not let that chain-grocery mentality of homogenized taste influence our choices of vegetables, do we? "Our" quelite is once again quite versatile and can be sauteed the Mexican way (with garlic, chiles etc, perhaps even topped with melted cheese) or used in virtually unlimited "creative" ways (say, in recipes where spinach might be called for). The other night, I wilted a huge bunch of these (as if they were-say-bitter arugula) to toss with good olive oil and store-bought raviolis. It was sensational!

Here then are three profoundly traditional Mexican herbs that I have discovered to be completely adaptable in a modern kitchen.

Chicagoan, let's learn to love and appreciate them. Let's make these herbs our own!

Richard

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