Thursday, August 16, 2012

Damned Torpedos, Huauzontle Ahead

Li-hing-rubbed torpedo with weird huauzontle and 
diced peppers

Torpedo with poached peaches on bulgur farrotto 
flavored with saffron and sage

Herb crusted torpedo with caramelized 
onion and fennel, on apple-onion risotto

One of my favorite ways to prepare sweet Italian sausage is as an oblong patty, locally known as a torpedo. Paulina Market sells beautiful torpedoes, so I usually get one one or two on every marketing trip. These trips usually include a swing by Andy's for vegetables, and it's there I discovered huauzontle*, branches of green buds that looked like a cross between broccoli and sticky nugs of boutique weed. One of the weirdest foods I've ever looked at, much less cooked.


There was only one bunch of huauzontle at Andy's, and the guy in the apron had no idea how to prepare it or eat it. Or in fact what it was called. All he knew was that it was "Mexican.**" Naturally I bought them (it?) and when I got home I Googled "weird looking Mexican vegetable like broccoli or marijuana buds" and got nowhere. Clicking the "images" link got me to epazote***, another plant eaten by Mexicans, then some sidebars got me to huauzontle****. I now knew what it was, but instructions on cooking it were limited to "use like spinach" and a few references to fried fritters made with the buds.

Since the torpedo of sausage can be imposing if it's presented as a briquet, I usually serve it in slices over something like rice, bulgur or greens, and if I could figure out how to cook them like spinach, as intimated on the internets, the bulbous green tufts of huauzontle seemed like they'd be a fine match. Or maybe poison, who knows.

I tried a nibble of a huauzontle***** raw and it was pretty dull. Like a chlorophyllic version of the little nub on the end of a shoelace. I decided to try cooking the florets on the stove with some liquid in a covered pan, just close my eyes and pretend it was spinach or kale and hope for the best.

I sliced some garlic and onions and wilted them in a saucepan with some olive oil and diced bacon, then added the huauzontle buds after stripping them from the stalks. The stalks seemed impossibly tough and woody so there seemed no point in trying to eat them. Perhaps if they're straight from the huauzontle patch (tree?) and haven't sat around a produce section for a while even the stalks would be edible, I don't know. In their present state they were kindling, not food. The buds didn't seem to be rendering any liquid, so I added a generous glug of white wine, and once the alcohol had boiled off I seasoned the pan with some salt and crushed dry birdseye chile, covered it and turned it down to a simmer.

The torpedo was pretty straightforward. I made a wet rub of li-hing powder, salt, black pepper, olive oil and mashed garlic, coated the torpedo with it and browned it in a hot skillet. When both sides had a healthy crust on them, I added a couple glugs of white wine and covered the skillet to braise the sausage. If cooked entirely by searing, the fat and juice tend to drain out of the torpedo******, leaving a more-or-less conventional sausage patty, curled into the unappealing shape of the cup of an athletic supporter. Braised in liquid, the torpedo stays juicy and swells itself into a plump little lozenge shape that is much easier to slice and has no unfortunate associations.

When plump and ready, I removed the torpedo to a plate to rest, and added the huauzontle to the skillet along with its pan juices. Since the huauzontle didn't generate any pot liquor of its own, the extra moisture of the braising liquid would be useful, and if the vegetable was as flavorless cooked as it was raw, the added flavor could save the dish. I left the pan on a high fire to reduce the liquid, and when most of it was absorbed into the greens I added some chopped scallions and mint, tossed everything together and put portions onto plates.

I sliced the torpedo slightly diagonally to make nice presentation slices and arranged them on the huauzontle, drizzling the collected juices over everything. The plate looked a little drab so I grated some home-made cheese over everything and diced a small red pepper from the alley as a garnish.

The torpedo came out well, the seared exterior had a sharp bite to it and the li-hing had penetrated to add both a nice pink color and a whiff of licorice that complimented the fennel in the sausage itself.

The huauazontle was fine if not remarkable. The flavor was mild and slightly musky, and the greens absorbed considerable flavor from the wine, garlic and braising liquid. The li-hing in particular added a welcome anise undertone that complimented the lean nature of the greens as well as it did the succulence of the sausage. After a total of about 20 minutes cooking, the buds weren't tough, though the stemmy bits were stick-like and stiff as matchsticks. Further cooking would probably be pointless, so I think the solution would be to be careful in stripping the buds off the stems.

On the whole, huauazontle is unremarkable to eat. Weird to look at and weird that anybody ever thought to eat a bunch of twigs with some buds on the end, but otherwise not special. Didn't smoke any.

*Pronounced "Wha-Wha-Zoontee-Lah" according to me, because of how I decided to say it.
**He was not Mexican. I know because I asked him. So I guess that was racist. Him saying huauzontle was Mexican is racist, not me asking him I mean. Was it rude to ask if he was Mexican? I mean how did he know?
***Pronounced "EP with non-LP B-side," 
****Google search also inexplicably got me to these:
*****Really, huauzontle? Is that the name? It sounds like a Jon Wurster character.