Last week, while grocery shopping at the Superama in Polanco, I got seduced by a big bunch of huazontle. It sat in the herb section, towering over the epazote and parsley like emerald-green heather. (Huazontle, pronounded "wan-ZONE-tlay," is a tall, wild green native to Mexico. People here remove the rough stems, cover the buds with cheese and eat them.)
I had a vague recollection of trying huazontle once, and an even vaguer recollection that I didn't like it. But -- this plant was so pretty. I may not have liked it before, but that was when other people had cooked it. In my own kitchen, with my All Clad cookware and pantry full of vinegars and oils, I could whip the huazontle into submission and make it taste the way I liked.
I decided to buy a bunch, either braise it or sauté it, and serve it with butternut squash and roasted chicken. Lola happened to be over that afternoon. She gave me a strange look when I told her I'd be sautéing the huazontle. "You're not going to boil it? Or, you know, people also serve it with cheese. Es muy rico." I said no. I didn't want to cover it with cheese. I wanted to taste
the huazontle. Even though I didn't exactly remember what it tasted like. And um… I didn't plan to taste it until after I was done cooking. (You may be realizing, as I am now, that I may have been slightly more in love with looking at the huazontle than actually eating it.) The next day, I invited Alice for lunch. A few hours before she was scheduled to show up, I cut the butternut squash into cubes, and tossed them with olive oil and salt. I scooped them into a roasting pan and rested the chicken pieces on top. Something nagged at me -- was I supposed to do something else here? -- but I ignored the feeling and set my timer for 45 minutes. When the chicken was done, I realized my error: I'd forgotten to turn the squash halfway through its cooking. The bottom sides were dark-brown and nearly burned. Crap! Wait, I told myself. This is okay. I'll just deglaze the pan with a little beer and add the huazontle. I picked up my big bowl containing about 6 cups worth (I measured) of huazontle, and tossed it in with the squash. I cooked everything a bit, and fished out a piece of huazontle with my wooden spoon. I bit into it… and nearly choked. This stuff was bitter. Not broccoli rabe bitter,
or even arugula bitter. Bitter like a fresh dandelion, pulled from the backyard. Bitter like all those weeds your mom made you pull as a kid. (Imagine stuffing them in your mouth.) Plus it gave me a weird heat sensation in the back of my throat, like a chili pepper. I took that as a sign that human beings were not meant to eat this in its natural state. Thinking quickly, I tried to remove all the huazontle from the pan. But some of the leaves were too small to fish out. They remained with the squash, like a stealth pesticide. I tasted again. The whole thing tasted like one huge weed. Feeling anxious and a teensy bit hysterical -- Alice was going to be at my house in 30 minutes! -- I decided to blanch the huazontle (blanching would keep its pretty color) and mask the taste of the butternut squash with a large sweet potato. I zapped the potato in the microwave, and smashed it in with the butternut squash. Tasted… too bland. Maybe a little crema and milk. And salt. After mixing, this looked kinda like vomit. But I'd gone too far to turn back. I placed a little bit on my spoon, and swallowed. It was salty and horrible. Just. Really. HORRIBLE. Meanwhile, my huazontle was bubbling over in its boiling water bath. I used a set of bamboo tongs to remove the weeds to a bowl of ice water and -- SNAP
. The tongs broke. I started laughing. Half hysterically. At that moment, I decided we'd eat out for lunch, and I rushed to clean up my sweet potato-butternut squash-beer-crema disaster before Alice rang the bell. I'd managed to quaff a few sips of the extra beer, too, with sweat running down my temples, when my buzzer rang. "We can't eat here," I announced to Alice, when I let her in downstairs. "The whole thing was a disaster." That's not entirely true. The chicken turned out fine. Now, four days later, I am not letting the huazontle win. I'm braising the rest of my greens, dammit. I will squeeze every last ounce of bitterness out of them by cooking them over a gentle heat, for three hours. Maybe in white wine and garlic. Or maybe it was the smaller, thinner stems that contained all the bitterness, and if I just braised the buds, I'd be fine. If any of you have any suggestions on how to make a bitter green less bitter, I am listening with an open and less-shallow heart. I promise not to covet a vegetable's looks anymore, before I taste it. And I promise not to assume I can do anything better than all the Mexican cooks in this country, who have been eating huazontle for hundreds of years. UPDATE:
Guess what else comes from the huazontle family? Quinoa, according to the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry.
My quest to make huazontle palatable just got that much stronger.