I learned how to cook huauzontles from my husband’s aunt Isabel, when I was just a newlywed, about 3 decades ago. Aunt Isabel was a cooking instructor for many years in the state of Veracruz until she retired and moved to Mexico City, where she lived until she passed away. I can still remember that day, when the two of us were there cleaning the Huauzontles in our kitchen in Toluca. She loved cooking, and when she talked about food she made your mouth water with all the flavors, textures, and aromas that she described.
Aunt Isabel liked to prepare Huauzontles with the stem on, but I prefer to remove it to really enjoy them. Cooking this meal is not an easy task, and it takes time, but when you finally sit down and savor it, you’ll know it was worth it!
Huauzontles are one of those old pre-Hispanic foods that we still treasure in Mexico; it is also a particularly popular food during Lent time. Nowadays, some even consider it a gourmet or specialty food, but in reality it is of the most humble of meals. “Huauzontle” (or “Huaunzontle”) comes from the Nahuatl word “nuahutzontli”. This, in turn, comes from the words “huantl” (amaranth) and “tzontli” (hair). The plant has many small flowers, and has a high protein content. Its scientific name is Chenopodium Nuttalliae, and it’s related to the common American weed Goosefoot; it has small florets resembling those from broccoli, although the stems are longer. The small flowers are usually prepared in this dish, called “Tortitas de Huautzontle” in Spanish. We form the patties, filled with cheese, and then serve them in a sauce. The sauce can be as simple as a tomato sauce, or be made of pasilla, guajillo, chipotle, and even serrano peppers.
Huautzontles are usually found at Latin Markets from March through October.
- 1 large bunch of Huauzontle branches, previously rinsed* (about 1 1/2 pound)
- 6 plum tomatoes**
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup white onion, finely chopped
- Salt to taste
- 8 oz Mexican Panela Cheese or Queso Fresco, 1/3 by 1-IN strips.***
- 1/2 cup flour
- 4 eggs, separated
- 1/2 cup of vegetable oil (or more) to fry the patties
*If Huauzontles are not available in your area, you can use cauliflower, broccoli, or even spinach.
** I use plum tomatoes for this type of sauces, since they render a denser sauce.
*** In some regions of Mexico, people use local cheeses, like Oaxaca or Chihuahua.
1. Remove the flowers buds from the main thick steams and place in a strainer. Make sure to remove any stems and small leaves, since they tend to have a bitter taste. Once you have removed all the florets, place under running water to clean again, then shake the strainer to removed any excess water. Personally, I don’t like to feel any stems while I eat them, that is why I only remove the small florets. Your original branch of Huauzontles will look like the picture at the left corner, after you take away all the little green florets.
2. Cook the Huauzontle florets in a medium sized pot with water and a pinch of salt at medium heat for about 8 to 10 minutes. They will be tender, but still have a bright beautiful green color. Remove and drain any excess water.
3. Place the cooked Huauzontles in a salad spinner to remove as much water as possible, or use a strainer and shake to remove the moisture. Check for any little stems, sticks, or leaves that we didn’t catch before cooking and discard them. Set aside to cool.
While the huauzontles are draining, lets cook the salsa…
4. Cook the tomatoes and garlic in a pot with water until they are soft and the skins start to peel.
5. Once cooked, place the tomatoes (skins discarded) in a blender along with the garlic. Process until you have a very smooth sauce.
6. In a medium saucepan, heat the 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil at medium heat and add the chopped onion. Cook until transparent and stir in the tomato sauce. Season with salt and gently simmer for about 5-7 minutes until sauce reduces a little and all the flavors are blended.
Time to form the Huauzontle Patties
7. To form the patties, or “tortitas,” place a small amount of the huauzontle in your hand and squeeze to remove any remaining moisture. Add a slice of the cheese, cover with more huauzontle, and squeeze to from the patty.
8. Spread the flour in a large plate and lightly coat the patties in it, one by one. Shake off any excess flour, making sure the patties keep their shape while doing this step. Form the rest of the patties using the same process.
9. Now, in a large frying pan, heat the oil. The oil should be about 3/4 in. deep. While the oil heats, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, and then stir in the yolks one by one while beating until you have a fluffy batter. Season with salt.
10. Once the oil is hot, dip each patty into the beaten eggs, making sure it is well coated. Carefully place the patty into the hot oil; do not overcrowd the skillet. Fry each side until it gets a deep golden color (it will take a few minutes for each side). It takes practice to master this step, now: use a large spatula to help you turn the patty gently. After you’ve fried it, place the patty on a paper towel to absorb the oil.
11. To serve, you have two options: warm the tomato sauce, add the patties to the sauce, and let them absorb some of the tomato sauce and serve covered with the salsa; or: place a small amount of the warm tomato sauce on a plate and top with the patties.