Thursday, February 14, 2008
Romeritos: A Mexican Green
Romeritos for Lent
by Victoria Challancin
The fact that romeritos (Suaeda torreyan) look like rosemary and taste like spinach makes them both a visual treat and a gustatory pleasure. This vegetable, which plays an integral culinary role in Mexico at Christmas and again during Lent, is often featured in recipes with chile-rich mole (romeritos con mole) or in patties with dried shrimp (romeritos con tortitas de camarón).
Romerito actually means “little rosemary” in Spanish. But it is there that the similarity ends. Though it resembles a soft, non-woody form of the herb rosemary, the flavor is somewhat tart and naturally salty. In fact, romeritos taste a lot like spinach. As an evergreen shrub that grows wild in marshy areas, romeritos tolerate a high saline content in the soil, and for this reason are often quite naturally salty.
Both wild and cultivated greens play an important role in the cuisine of Mexico. Many are free, or at least very economical to use, easily available, and provide a nutritional boost to various dishes. But because they hold a special place in both the feast and daily foods of Navidad (Christmas) and Cuaresma (Lent), romeritos cross socio-economic lines by appearing on the tables of the rich and the poor.
While I can’t seem to find any substantial information about the nutritional value of romeritos, you can bet they provide both fiber and iron, as well as other minerals and vitamins. Neither the phytochemical nor ethnobotanical databases that I enjoy reading have much information on Suaeda torreyana, yet romeritos are an important food source here in Mexico. My research shows that they grow in Arizona, Texas, Utah, and the Colorado Desert as well as in Mexico, but as far as I know, they don’t figure into the non-Hispanic culinary tradition in any significant way. If anyone has more information on this, please me know.
When a Mexican woman in line with me at the grocery store last week asked me if I was going to prepare my bag of romeritos with mole, I think my answer disappointed and perhaps confused her. Knowing my grown son’s eyes would light up when served his favorite vegetable, I replied, “No, Señora, not in mole. I am just going to cook them plain in water.”
But sometimes simple is best. For me the freshest way to enjoy romeritos is to steam them or cook them in water. Nothing else. Not one addition. There is no other food that I can think of that I prepare this way.
For a traditional Mexican dish, try pairing romeritos with cactus, eggs, potatoes, or dried shrimp. Or smother them with a rich mole or pipián (pumpkin seed) sauce. Saveur magazine (saveur.com) has a recipe for Romeritos with Shrimp Cakes and The San Miguel Chronicles (thesanmiguelchronicles.com) posts a Romeritos con Mole recipe in their December 2001 archive.
For non-traditional uses, just think of how you might use spinach. Steam them or cook them in water as I do; sauté them Italian-style with onion, garlic, raisins, and pine nuts; toss them into soup; cream them; add them to omelets; toss them with yogurt; cook them with meat or poultry stews.
Discard any dry leaves or woody bits, clean, and disinfect.
Remember that romeritos are naturally salty. Be sure to check the seasoning before adding any salt.