Story by José C. Marmolejo
After a long lunchless day at my father’s farm, he and I left for home hoping for a big dinner only to get caught in a rare rainstorm that got our truck stuck in the mud. It doesn’t rain much in Northern Mexico but when it rains it pours. After we were rescued by a neighbor’s farm worker equipped with chains and a tractor, we found ourselves late at night starving in the house of this noble man that got us out of the mud. It was a small adobe house with a dirt floor. No electricity. There was, however, a fogón, a three-foot-high fireplace which served as a wood burning stove, heating system and a source of light. Not enough comfort for contemporary standards but then, in the late 1950’s, it felt very cozy and it allowed me to see that my father was up to his knees with mud. We were graciously offered dinner and were seated around a table in front of tin enamel plates full of warm quelites.
Quelites are edible wild greens. When found in the middle of a modern crop field they are weeds and need to be rooted out. Around the Milpa, their presence is desirable. Abundant in the rainy season, peasants pick and carry them home to feed the chickens and pigs, others clean and sautée them for their consumption. Onions, garlic, and fresh or dry chiles make their perfect seasoning.
In the beginning of civilization, all the greens that we find today in the supermarket were quelites. Lettuce, spinach, kale to name just a few. Agriculture made possible to reproduce vegetables ad libitum and modern agriculture allow us to have them available year round.
Watercress or berro (Nasturtium officinale), hoja santa or acuyo (Piper sanctum), chard or acelga (Beta vulgaris), purslane or verdolaga (Portulaca oleracea) are examples of greens available in American supermarkets today as well as street markets in Mexico, where they are consumed the same way they were hundreds of years ago.
According to the National Commission on Biodiversity in Mexico, there are around 360 species considered quelites but only about 30 of these can be found in the street markets today. The word quelite comes from the Náhuatl term quilitl which means “edible weed” and they have been known and consumed by all Mesoamerican civilizations for countless generations. Quelites are also used to wrap food like hoja santa, perfume it like cilantro, and condiment it like epazote. Some have medicinal uses too, and their nutritional value is remarkable. Besides being an excellent source of fiber, they are rich in minerals and vitamins, and others may contain healing substances. A truly vegetarian treasure!
Back to our stuck in the mud adventure, I recall in those days having read a short story in an elementary school book about a family situation that revolved around a dish called “Quelites con Queso” (recipe below). I do not remember what the story said, but this dish name came up in what seemed to me every other sentence claiming how delicious they were. Even though I had never eaten quelites con queso, because of the reading, I was very familiar with the dish—or at least I thought so. I now know that that book was the first “food book” I read…
After our quelites dinner, we left for home, about half an hour drive from where we were, fortunately with no more incidents. With no cell—or any other type of phone available—then, we obviously found my mother worried when we arrived. She knew it had been a long day. She also knew that we had run into trouble and most definitely, she knew that we had not carried food along. Immediately she asked if we had eaten, if we were hungry. I answered, “We had dinner. We had some delicious quelites con queso.” It was an announcement I was prepared and anxious to make, to which my father added: “Yes, we ate, yes they were quelites, but they didn’t have any cheese… they were rotten sour.” Poor me, just a kid—in poor lighting—thinking that I knew about eating quelites and not realizing that the acidic flavor on our dinner didn’t not come from melted cheese but from spoiled food… ”
Recipes for Quelites
Note: All quelites need to be rinsed only in cold water before proceeding to cook them, as hot water would extract their delicate flavor.
Quelites con Queso
10 oz. of quelites of your choice, roughly chopped. Spinach or purslane recommended.
½ onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ lb. Monterey Jack cheese, grated
1 to 2 red fresh jalapeño chiles, finely chopped for garnish (optional)
Sautée the onions and garlic in a little oil. Lower the flame and add the cheese, stirring constantly until all cheese is melted. Add the quelites and stir for 3 to 5 minutes. Garnish with the jalapeños. Serve on corn or flour tortillas, or as a side dish to meats, or to accompany rice or pasta. This mix can also be prepared as fondue.
Yield: 2 portions
Heat scale: Hot
Fettuccine with Cenizo (Chenopodium berlandieri)
This recipe is a courtesy of my daughter Natalia. I tried it while I was visiting her in Milano, Italy. She makes it with Cima di Rapa (Broccoli Rabe) but it can be made with mustard greens, kale, chard or spinach.
8 oz. dry pasta or 16 oz. of fresh pasta, cooked
10 oz. cenizo (Chenopodium berlandieri). Substitute purslane or spinach or kale or chard
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
4 tbsp of sour cream
The juice of 1 Lemon
lemon zest to taste
salt to taste
grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)
Sautée the quelites in butter with the garlic and salt until soft. Remove and reserve. In the same sauteing pan, place the cooked pasta with some olive oil and sautée it lightly. Add the sour cream, the lemon juice, and zest some of its skin too. Verify for salt. Serve the quelites over the pasta and garnish with cheese. Buon appetito!
Yield: 4 portions
Heat Scale: None
Leek, Potato, Poblanos and Quelites soup
Leek and potato soup is a classic from the old continent to which Chef Stephen Pyles added poblano chiles to make it a winner and one of my favorite soups. In the rainy season, the abundance of quelites suggests adding them to this soup for a change in a cold afternoon.
3 medium size cooked potatoes cut in small cubes. Save the water where the potatoes were boiled
3 roasted poblano chiles stemmed, seeded. Deveined optional
1 piece of leek
10 oz. of quelites of your choice. Spinach or purslane work wonders
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Cut the leek in ¼-inch thick slices and sautée in the olive oil in the pot where you are going to boil the soup. After the leek has changed color, add the garlic and finish sauteing. Reserve
In a blender mix half of the potatoes, poblanos, and leek with garlic to a texture of your choice using the water where the potatoes were boiled. Pour the mix into the cooking pot and the other half of the potato cubes, and boil for five minutes. Add the quelites and salt and boil for three additional minutes. Ready!
Yield: 4 portions
Heat level: Medium to hot