The warmer temperatures of spring and summer, in combination with the monsoon rains or the supplemental irrigation of gardens and fields, bring with them a profusion of delightfully edible wild greens. For many, this is nothing new. However, knowing what to do with them can be a little confusing, perhaps even challenging. But follow a few basic guidelines and you’ll be friends for life. You will look forward to their annual arrival like the return of a great friend that you haven’t seen for some time—and with a few recipes in your back pocket, you’ll be able to invite them to dinner.
In this part of the world, there are three common greens available for the harvesting: Portulaca oleracea, commonly known as purslane; Amaranthus palmeri, known as amaranth; and the Chenopodium species, known as lambsquarters. In Mexico, where these plants are still used domestically, both amaranth and lambsquarters are broadly classified as quelites, pronounced kay-LEE-tays, a term that can also include some cultivated plants like acelgas (Swiss chard) or quelites blancos (Napa cabbage). Amaranth greens are known as bledos, lambsquarters, and choales, and purslane as verdolagas.
Years ago, my early attempts to prepare these wild plants as food were not particularly encouraging. I loved the idea of eating wild local plants, but my enthusiasm was short-lived when my results were less than spectacular—and when no one in my family was interested in eating them.
As has often been the case, it was just across the border in Sonora where I found my answers. When two Sonorans from the town of San Felipe came north to stay with us in Canelo—ostensibly to teach us the art of Sonoran mescal—we got an inadvertent lesson in how to prepare local greens. Angelita and Dimas Lopez weren’t overly enthusiastic about food north of the border, so Angelita started cooking. She gave new meaning and life to the world of wild amaranth. Although she prepared them in much the same manner one might cook spinach, she brought these greens to life. Their taste was simple, but perhaps more important, they were soothing and energizing. She taught me that quelites were most often eaten cooked rather than raw, although in trendy urban restaurants and homes the tender young leaves are finding their way into salads.
It is amazing to me that these wild plants have not assumed a more prominent place in modern food culture, given how effortless they are to gather and cook in comparison to most other greens. Besides growing easily in arid environments, wild greens have an impeccable sense of timing—they appear soon after most greens and salad crops have gone to seed. They are virtually immune to damage by insects and do not require soil improvement. They can make gardening fun and empowering. And you can’t beat the price—they cost only a little bit of your time to harvest.
When and where to find these plants? The combination of warmer temperatures and water causes them to grow. At our home in Canelo at 5,000 feet elevation, wild greens start appearing in our garden sometime in May. I’ve encouraged a mix to grow in the garden, including purslane and wild and domesticated amaranth as well as lambsquarter. Seeds for all are commonly available—check at Native Seeds/SEARCH, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, or Seeds of Change.
And of course, you can also harvest wild greens. Once you know what to look for, you will find them just about everywhere, popping up where you would least expect. In Sonora, I know I can find them on the edges of irrigated fields or roadsides and in places where excess water collects, especially during the monsoon rains. And increasingly, they can be found at farmers’ markets and in CSA shares.
Around the world, purslane is a highly respected and sought-after edible. Purslane has been consumed since ancient times, and because it grows easily in hot and dry climates, it is represented in many cuisines of the world, from Greece to Mexico and Turkey to India, by way of South Africa. The Korean name is jang-meoung-chae, which means longevity. The Greeks considered it an important medicinal herb.
It is a succulent plant whose edible, delicious leaves are crunchy and slightly mucilaginous, with a tangy lemony and peppery flavor. It has a somewhat gooey, okra-like texture. When harvested in the early morning or late afternoon, the leaves have a more tangy taste. The stems, leaves, and flower buds are all edible. Purslane may be used fresh as a salad, stir-fried, blanched, or boiled.
The trick with harvesting is to remove the thinner stems and leaves that are attached to the thicker central stem. Harvest before the plant goes to seed. And since the plant tends to hug the ground, wash leaves thoroughly to remove any dirt and grit.
Purslane contains high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, one of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids typically found in fish. It contains vitamins A, B, C, and E, and seven times more beta carotene than carrots as well as magnesium, calcium, potassium, folate, lithium, and iron. In essence, it’s a super plant that is good for you in just about every way.
Several similar variations of the basic recipe can be found in Sonora. In the north of Sonora, wheat flour is used, but in the southern part of the state, corn is more commonly preferred.
Toast flour until it achieves a golden color and set aside. Cut verdolagas into pieces, two to three inches long discarding any large, thick stems. The smaller stems are fine. If you’re including chiles, lightly sauté them and set aside. Saute onion for about 4 to 5 minutes. When transparent, add garlic. After a minute, add tomato, continue cooking for about a minute, and then add the verdolagas. If using chiles, add. Cover and cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes until soft. Add water in small amounts if necessary. Dissolve the flour into the milk, add the cheese, and then add the mixture to the verdolagas. Reduce the heat and continue cooking several minutes over low heat. Salt to taste. Serves 5 to 6.
We would frequent Elvira’s Restaurant when it was still located in Nogales, Sonora. One day when I entered carrying a bag of verdolagas, one of the waiters grabbed the bag from my hands and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned with this marvelous salad that he said he ate daily at his home whenever it was in season. It has become one of our summer staples.
Chop the verdolagas into bite-size pieces. Combine with the chopped tomatoes, onions, and lime juice. Serves 2.
The combination of verdolagas, green tomatillo sauce, and pork can be found throughout central and southern Mexico. Tofu is a good option for those who don’t want to eat pork. You can also omit the pork and tofu and just do the verdolagas and tomatillo sauce. Just reduce the amount of water.
Place tomatillos and chiles in 4 cups of water and cook until tomatillos are soft. (You can also place tomatillos and chiles under a broiler until partially black and blistered.) When ingredients are cooled, combine in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Sauté onion for about 5 minutes, add garlic, and continue for another minute. Add blended tomatillos and chiles and cook for approximately 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest. In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown pork or tofu over medium heat in a tablespoon of oil or lard. Add water to cover and simmer until pork is tender. Once meat is tender, add green sauce and a sprig of epazote. Serves 4.
For all practical purposes, recipes and harvesting methods are identical for both amaranth greens and lambsquarters—feel free to substitute. There are many species of amaranth that can be found around the globe. In Baja Arizona, the most common and abundant is Amaranthus palmeri. Like purslane, it appears just about every place imaginable, especially in and around agricultural fields, irrigation ditches, and vegetable gardens. It can be harvested by collecting the entire young plant, typically less than a foot tall, or by picking the upper and smaller leaves from the more mature plants.
Amaranth greens are prepared in a variety of ways. Many preparations are comparable to usages of spinach. In fact, in parts of Mexico, amaranth is called espinaca. The smallest leaves, when blanched, are good in salads. In Sonora, amaranth is cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes, or red chile. I have also eaten it with eggs and machaca (dried shredded beef). In India, it finds its way into soups, curries, and stuffed parathas. They are popular in stir-fry Chinese dishes when sautéed with chicken or pork. The Greeks make a marvelous dish called vleeta, a combination of the boiled greens with lemon and olive oil.
Amaranth greens are loaded with carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins B, A, C and K. They also are a great source for manganese, iron, copper, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous, as well as dietary fiber. Keep in mind that amaranth greens, like many other wild greens, contain high amounts of oxalic acid. Excessive consumption can cause some irritation, particularly for anyone with gout, kidney problems, or rheumatoid arthritis. For cooking, use something other than aluminum.
Cook greens in boiling water until tender. Sauté onions and chiles for a couple of minutes, then add tomato. If there is excess liquid, cook long enough to evaporate. Add greens, cook another 5 minutes, until all are well blended. Add eggs, turn down heat, and scramble until they are set. Top with chopped cilantro. Serves 4.
Probably the most common way of preparing quelites in Sonora is with tomato. Another common variation substitutes red chile for tomato. Frijoles de la olla (boiled beans) are sometimes added.
The quelites can be parboiled for a minute and set aside before beginning. Sauté garlic until golden and set aside. If chiles are being used, lightly sauté and set aside, being careful not to burn as they become bitter. Sauté flour until golden, add onion, and continue cooking until transparent. If using tomato, add to pan. Add quelites, garlic, and chiles. Add water as needed to maintain sufficient moisture. If using beans, add to the pan. Cook for about 20 minutes. When quelites are soft, they can be either mashed or lightly blended to a smooth texture. If a very smooth texture is desired, they can be blended. Add salt and chiltepin, to taste. Top with any type of fresh cheese, such as queso fresco, requeson, or queso panela. Serves 4.✜