The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Agriculture  / Growing Strange Greens

Growing Strange Greens

This summer I devoted a good part of my garden a large bed of huauzontle. Why huauzontle? Well, because I once spent 10 days in Puebla, Mexico, and one of the daily offerings for breakfast were these delicious fritters of a peculiar green (it kind of looked like broccoli but wasn’t) simmered in a red chile sauce. I ate them every day with gusto, but it took me a while to figure out what it was I was eating. It looked like bunches of very tiny flower buds, and that’s exactly what it was. But from what plant?

I finally found out that it was a plant called huauzontle, a large goosefoot, or chenopod. In flower it looks a lot like quinoa, to which it is closely related, only one eats the little flowers before they become seeds.

A springtime fritter

This past spring I finally got to see it close up and uncooked. It was Easter week, I was teaching at Rancho la Puerta, and huauzontle happened to be available in the supermarket as a spring delicacy as well as a Lenten food. My friend Francisco, who works at the ranch and is an avid gardener, offered to show me and Penni Wisner, with whom I was teaching, how to make these succulent fritters. He and his wife and two little boys worked together while Penni and I helped out but mostly watched.

Basically, you clip off the flowers bracts, leaving only the thinnest stems, steam them until they’re tender, then mold them with your hands around a piece of salty soft white cheese. They then get dipped in a frothy batter of egg yolks and beaten egg whites before being slid into a cazuela of hot oil. Once they’re puffy and golden, the fritters are simmered in a mild chile sauce. In this case guajillo chiles were used with just a few slices of onion and a bit of garlic. When at last we sat down to eat together, we found this handsome dish utterly substantial and satisfying, indeed a perfect dish for Lent or any other time of year that huauzontle is available. And they were just as good as I remembered them from Puebla. These fritters are somewhat time-consuming to make, but interesting and good to eat. Because even the finer stems can be wiry tough it’s quite permissible to run them through your teeth, leaving the little flowers behind. Given the sauce and the coating, this is something of a down and dirty process.

Plant or weed?

Once I got home, I found seeds for huauzontle — also called Red Aztec Spinach — in the Terroir seed catalogue. That was in June. By late September, I had a huge mass of this plant in flower. Since I never expect things to grow, I’m quite thrilled. But when a Yaqui friend of mine saw my huauzontle forest and asked, “How come you planted those weeds?” I was a little deflated.

I had to admit he had a point. They do look a lot like many of the weeds growing around my garden. I hadn’t noticed them before, but now I can see a lot of plants growing well on their own that look quite a bit like huauzontle, amaranth and a host of other closely related wild greens.

But, to answer my friend’s question, why this “weed”? Because it’s so much more interesting to eat than other plants. I’ve already steamed the flower buds and had them with nothing more than butter, salt and pepper for starters, and I can see that they taste not unlike chard, spinach, beet greens, orach, Good King Henry, quinoa leaves, and all the greens domestic and wild that grow around New Mexico. But there’s something very different about eating the more unusual ones, like huauzontle, that are closer to being wild than say, spinach is: They are fortifying and intense, and it’s as if their considerable nutrients go directly into your bloodstream. Their taste is — I know, it doesn’t make sense, but I’m not the only who feels this way — green. Wild. A little strange, sometimes even salty, untamed and strength-giving. They’re not quite like other plants we know — not really like broccoli despite my initial confusion about the looks, not really like spinach, which is somewhat bland by comparison. Rather, huauzontle and other wilder greens, collectively called quelites in New Mexico, are a whole new kind of food.

My huauzontle was big and green until the temperature dropped into the forties. Now the flower buds are a deep dusky red, and the leaves are going in that direction as well. The flower plumes are too tough to eat, but gorgeous in a large vase. I intend to grow it again next year as I didn’t learn as much as I’d wanted to this time around, but I suspect it won’t be necessary to buy seed. Like amaranth and quinoa, I can see that there are going to be millions of seeds scattered about, regardless of how much I manage to cook or compost. This is one vigorous, productive plant and, I suspect, a good one to get to know.

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”

Photo: Huauzontle growing in Madison’s garden. Credit: Deborah Madison

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.

  • steve 11·19·12

    Hi, I am glad that people are rediscovering ancient greens. My father is from puebla and I actually didnt have a chance for this green. I plan on planting all kinds of ancient plants from the americas here in So. California. Peace

  • Deborah Madison 11·25·12

    Steve – what a wonderful project that will be. And you’re in just the right place, too.
    I love growing amaranths of all kinds – they’re bold, beautiful plants and so generous with their
    seeds and beautiful (edible) leaves!

  • Pilar 2·4·14

    I don’t like all the process of making and frying the tortas so i make a huauzontle quiche and I serve the salsa on the side

  • Robert 5·23·14

    This is a ‘new vegetable’ making inroads to an extent in the UK. One I look forward to growing and trying for myself this year.