Rice and greens, or arroz con quelites

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Mercado Hidalgo is considered a little “fresa,” which literally means “strawberry” but is also Mexican slang meaning “snobby.” It’s located in upper-class Colonia Reforma, on Emilio Carranza on the block north of Palmeras, and its produce does sparkle. I saw stuff that I hadn’t seen in other markets in Oaxaca, like huitlacoche and fresh figs. I almost flipped when I saw the figs, as it doesn’t quite feel like summer unless I eat some fresh figs.

They also had beautiful bunches of quelites, a type of Mexican green, leafy vegetable, which inspired me to actually try one of the recipes from my new Mexican cookbook, “Alquimias y Atmosferas de Sabor,” by Carmen Ramirez Degollado, the chef and owner of the beloved “El Bajio” in Mexico City. I’ve been trying to read more Spanish, since I remember more from reading than hearing, but the only thing that really holds my interest enough to get through more than a few pages are cookbooks and food magazines. Unfortunately, reading them doesn’t challenge me as much as reading literature or news articles would because I know enough about how recipes are constructed to figure out most of what I read through context. For example, as I read a recipe calling for “chayotes tiernos,” I guessed that “tierno” meant fresh or tender, didn’t bother looking it up in the dictionary, and then was shocked when my Spanish teacher described her ex-boyfriend as acting very gentlemanly and very “tierno” on their first date. It turns out a man can be as tender as a vegetable.

Rick Bayless translates “quelites” as “lamb’s quarters,” and recommends substituting it in his recipes with chard or collard greens in the U.S., some green with strong flavors. But I’m not sure that he’s describing the same thing I bought, as my “quelites” were more like spinach, just better. They had a similar sweet flavor, and reminded me a lot of Korean spinach with its leggy stems, but without the furry aftertaste of a lot of American spinach. Also, I know that the word “quelites” is used to describe a whole category of Mexican greens, including even amaranth leaves which are also called “quintonil,” and amaranth leaves are distinctly stronger and more bitter, more like chard.

But I digress. The recipe was very simple, a rice with greens dish, calling for the rice to be fried with pureed raw onion and garlic. Then broth was to be added with the bunch of raw quelites, two parts broth to one part rice. Like most Mexican recipes, it assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and I wondered, “Stalks and all? Should I pulverize the leaves and make it a green rice? Should I throw the leaves in whole?” Finally, I decided to just destem them, chop them roughly and throw them in with the broth leftover from cooking my pork shoulder.

Well, I put in way too much broth, forgetting the leaves would emit a fair amount of water themselves, and I ended up with a rice with greens porridge. I mistakenly thought I could avoid burning the rice this time by adding more broth earlier on. I also think there’s a reason chicken broth is normally used to cook rice, not pork broth, because although the flavor was richer than it would have been with water, it wasn’t rich in quite the right way. But the quelites didn’t turn turd green, I got to try cooking with them, and I still enjoyed my rice mush very much. Thank God I had my shameless solitude.

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