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All About Quelites — A Flavorful and Nutritious Cornerstone of Mexican Cuisine

In Mexico, out of the approximately 23,000 plant varieties, about 500 of them are delicious and nutritious young, tender plants known as quelites. Quelites are some of the most ancestral and endemic bedrock ingredients of Mesoamerica cuisine and are even referenced in the 16th century Florentine Codex. 

Often sprouting from milpas — the synchronic agricultural system that at its core grows the three sisters, maíz, beans, and squash — quelites are typically prepared and enjoyed together with their sibling crops. But milpas are not the only way quelites grow. They’re also cultivated in agricultural fields, and grow abundantly in the wild — in forests, grasslands, and in plains. Quelites, like dandelion and mustard leaves, can even be found sprouting along city sidewalks, although we know them by other names.

Their preparation methods vary from region to region as ecosystems, microclimates, and cultures vary widely throughout Mexico. They’re sautéed, wilted, fried, and blanched and find their way into soups and stews, quesadillas, sauces, moles, and more. These tender herbs and flowers may be young, but they’re packed with flavor — like epazote, the minty, anise-forward herb that’s used to flavor beans; or grassy, peppery pápalo that’s typically used in green moles. 

Not only are they flavorful, but quelites are also revered for their nutritional and medicinal benefits. For example, pápalo is consumed to lower inflammation and hoja santa is eaten to aid digestion. 

So if you weren’t yet acquainted with quelites, like squash blossoms and shoots, huauzontle, and verdolagas, or if they’re old friends, we welcome you to learn a little more about our favorite quelites, and color your kitchen a little more green.

Romerito, also known as quelite salado, or salted quelite, is a familiar quelite during Mexican holiday dinners, commonly and traditionally prepared with diced potato and mole for Christmas or Easter. This childhood favorite was a rich, stewy, herbaceous dish with savory, earthy notes. Although its name sounds like the Spanish translation of rosemary, romerito isn’t a rosemary — it’s a seepweed. This quelite grows wild, and up to 60 centimeters (23 inches) in length, in milpas that cultivate maíz, and in some parts of Mexico it’s even an invasive weed.

Romerito’s flavor is earthy and in the era of the Aztec civilization, it was prepared with ahuauatles — eggs produced by aquatic flies that taste like shrimp. This is why romeritos are often paired with shrimp today. To prepare romeritos, first separate the long narrow leaves from the stem and give the leaves a rinse, then boil with salt (and aromatics like garlic and onion, if desired) on medium heat until they are tender and a darker shade of green, which should take 10 to 15 minutes. The liquid you are left with can be saved as a delicious romerito broth. Once boiled, you can add romerito to mole, soups, stews, tacos, or as any filling your heart desires: sopes, tetelas, tortillas — any shape of maíz!

Hoja santa translates to sacred herb/leaf, and is a forest green heart-shaped leaf with peppery anise and root beer notes. The leaves are commonly seen pressed into tortillas to add an extra aromatic and visual element to quesadillas, tacos, or tetelas. These sweet-smelling quelites typically grow in tropical regions like Oaxaca and Veracruz, and can grow up to 30 centimeters (almost 12 inches). Medicinally, they are used to soothe stomachaches and as a sedative to combat insomnia. In the kitchen, they make a fragrant tea, and their delicate flavor lends itself to foods like salsas, broths, and mole verde, and adds a lovely pop of flavor as a tamal wrap between the husk and masa.

Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossom), Guías de Calabaza (Squash Vines), and Hoja de Calabaza (Squash Leaves)

Considered the “Aztec butterfly,” pápalo — known as papaloquelitl in Nahuatl — has scalloped edges and is a minty emerald-green color. Valued for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, this herb is potent both holistically and culinarily. Medicinally, pápalo is thought to regulate cholesterol and high blood pressure, amongst other benefits. Gastronomically, this quelite — which is used fresh and tastes like a peppery cross between spinach and arugula with a touch of heat — is delicious in tortas like cemitas poblanas, adds a nice zing in tomatillo-based salsas, and is a great peppery addition to salads or as a garnish to cut through rich dishes. It’s even suggested as an alternative for people averse to the flavor of cilantro.  

Hoja de Rábano (Radish Leaves) 

Available in supermarkets and farmers markets, radish leaves are perhaps the most accessible quelite. These root tops have a light peppery flavor with a subtle bitterness. They can be juiced with other greens and sweetened with fruits like apple or citrus, blended into a creamed soup, chopped up into a salad, or sautéed with onion and garlic, and folded into a tofu or egg scramble. 

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