Romerito, a plant in the Suaeda genus, is one of a number of nutritious, wild-growing edible plants that have been consumed in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. Romeritos are common as holiday fare (Christmas and Lent) in the central part of that country, and are most often eaten in mole sauce, but can also be prepared in a number of other ways.
What Are Romeritos and Where Do They Come From?
Romeritos fall into the category of what Mexicans call quelites, edible plants that often spring up voluntarily - weed-like - in traditional agricultural fields.
These tender, leafy greens were historically an important source of nutrients for Mexican farming families at the beginning of each growing season, while the cultivated crops such as corn and beans were not yet ready for harvest. Some quelites can be eaten raw, while others, like romeritos, are always cooked. In recent decades, the consumption of quelites has declined drastically. This is unfortunate, as they are delicious, versatile, and rich in fiber and nutrients such as minerals (iron and potassium) and vitamins (such as A and C).
Though relatively easy to cook (whether sauteed, steamed, or boiled), romeritos are a bit laborious to prep. The fresh leaves must be meticulously picked over, and tough stems and any damaged or discolored portions discarded. The clean portions are then rinsed multiple times to wash away any sand or soil particles.
Please note that although the romerito plant superficially resembles the herb rosemary in both appearance and name (“romerito” vs “romero” in Spanish), the two species are unrelated and definitely not interchangeable in culinary use.
Romerito is more tender than rosemary, and it is not aromatic. Rosemary originated in the Mediterranean and is used as a seasoning, while romerito is native to North America and is consumed as a vegetable.
Where Can I Find Romeritos?
Romeritos generally grow in marshy soil, giving them a somewhat naturally salty flavor.
Nowadays the most important area of commercial cultivation of this plant is the southern part of Mexico City, a vast agricultural zone. The plant takes about 60 days to reach maturity, so seeds are sown in October to be harvested for the December holidays. The cut romeritos are sold, either by weight or by "handfuls," everywhere from traditional rustic market stalls to modern supermarket produce sections.
Outside of Mexico, romeritos can occasionally be found in areas of large Mexican populations (especially the southwestern United States), but most of us probably won't have easy access to this delicious leafy green. Fortunately, spinach has a similar flavor, color, and texture, so we can still enjoy traditional romerito recipes by substituting fresh baby spinach for the original ingredient.
How Do I Prep My Romeritos?
If you are fortunate to have access to real romeritos, plan to take some time to carefully pick over your purchase and remove everything except the tender green stems and leaves. Rinse them repeatedly to ensure that any grit is eliminated. When cooking, do not add salt to your dish; test right before serving and add a small amount if it is necessary (which it will probably not be, since romeritos are naturally salty).
If no actual romeritos are available, feel free to substitute baby spinach or another similarly mild-flavored leafy green. Remove and discard any tough stems and thoroughly wash and drain the leaves before starting to cook. Cut any large leaves (over 4 inches long) into smaller pieces.
Ways to Cook Romeritos
Revoltijo: The most traditional way to serve romeritos is in a stew-like dish called revoltijo, which translates loosely as "jumble" (presumably because it looks like a jumble of ingredients when plated). Typically served at Christmas time and during Lent/Holy Week, it is a somewhat fancy meatless dish.
To make revoltijo, prepare a mole sauce, either from a commercially-sold paste or from scratch. Add the romeritos and cook until the greens are tender. Add cooked potatoes (either whole small waxy potatoes or larger ones cut into 1" to 2" chunks), cooked strips of nopal cactus, cooked shrimp, and/or fried patties made from egg and dried shrimp powder or finely chopped cooked shrimp. Heat through, then serve as a main dish (accompanied by white rice, if desired) or as a hearty side to roasted poultry, pork, or seafood. Be sure to serve with bolillos or similar bread so that your guests can mop up the extra sauce on their plates with the bread.
Leftover revoltijo can be refrigerated and reheated, although the potatoes and shrimp will most likely take on a somewhat unattractive dark color from sitting in the mole sauce.
Variation: Make revoltijo with some other Mexican cooking sauce in place of the mole.
Romeritos a la mexicana: Saute some chopped onion, diced serrano or jalapeno pepper, and diced tomato in a little vegetable oil. When onion is tender, add romeritos and continue to saute until the greens are cooked and tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Serve as a side dish to a plain meat. (Note: Dishes with a la mexicana in the name typically consist of ingredients that are the colors of the Mexican flag—green, white, and red—often onion, fresh chiles, and tomatoes.)
Patties: Use your favorite recipe for spinach (or other vegetable) patties/croquettes, but substitute romeritos. Serve plain, in mole, or in any Mexican cooking sauce.
An egg's best friend: Chop your romeritos and sautee with a little diced onion. Use as a filling for an omelette, or mix into scrambled eggs.
Make a romerito pie: use romeritos in place of the spinach or Swiss chard in a phyllo dough spanakopita-like savory pastry creation.
Exotic pasta: Make a pesto featuring romeritos, then use it to dress cooked spaghetti or other pasta shape.
Keep it simple: Saute some romeritos with a little diced garlic and chopped onion. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve as a side dish to meat or poultry.