I was in a bliss when I checked my garden after the cold spell in Southern Ontario last week; although some of the most tender plants suffered some damage, and a few are still struggling, I was happy to register no casualties. Pápalo (Porophyllum ruderale ssp. macrocephalum) is a Mexican herb that is particularly sensitive to low temperatures; my seedlings, as seen below, looked a little stressed, and a few leaves froze and died:
However, they are recovering quite nicely, and I will be finally transplanting them to the ground this week. I managed to harvest a few leaves before the cold spell, and the photo below shows another sprig, collected afterwards:
Pápalo is a pre-Hispanic herb originally from Mexico, that aids in the prevention of borborygmi and other digestive discomfort; some street taco stands in Mexico, particularly in Mexico City, keep a bunch in a pot with water, and customers may help themselves to a few leaves to add to their greasy food. Pápalo is often compared to cilantro, and gets recommended as a substitute for it during the hot summer months, because cilantro tends to bolt and its taste turns soapy in the heat, whereas pápalo grows better the hotter it gets outside. My husband and I sampled a few leaves on their own, and completely disagree with that comparison; pápalo has a very distinctive flavour profile, starting mild and ending with a strong and pungent bite. I guess it might compare to cilantro in the sense that many people love it, and others hate it.
One of the best known applications of pápalo is as a required topping to prepare a cemita, a sandwich created in the Mexican state of Puebla, named after the bun with which it is traditionally prepared. Puebla style cemita buns have a characteristic bump on the top, are extra soft and fluffy inside, but have a very crispy crust, and are topped with sesame seeds:
They might look like regular hamburger buns, but make no mistake, they are completely different. People in Puebla will declare that, without cemita buns and pápalo leaves, there is no cemita sandwich. Wily vendors would also claim that not only are the fillings very specific, but the order in which they are arranged is of utmost importance for an actual cemita preparada:
After slicing the bun, a layer of avocado is the first ingredient, then, the protein, usually meat and quesillo, a type of stringy cheese originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The most popular meat is breaded pork (as shown above) or chicken cutlets, but slices of ham, pork roast, or pickled beef shank are also accepted; for a vegetarian option, potatoes and extra cheese are an example. The layers continue with – yes! – a second portion of avocado, followed by sliced onions, and pápalo leaves. Chipotle peppers are optional; the Puebla style are not like the canned (prepared in adobo sauce), but are sweet, cooked with spices and piloncillo (unrefined sugar cane sweetener). A drizzle of olive oil before closing the sandwich is also optional. Pickled jalapeños with vegetables are often served as a side.
For this recipe, I found a ball of quesillo style cheese from Mexico at an international store; it was pulled easily into threads, but not as great as the cheese shown below, bought at a market in Mexico:
If not available, a stringy mozzarella cheese can take the place of quesillo. From lack of other ingredients at local stores in Canada, I went “all Martha Stewart”, and in addition to growing my own pápalo, I baked a couple of batches of cemita buns, and prepared sweet chipotle peppers from scratch; I will be sharing my recipes in my next posts (UPDATE: Links at the end of this post, as well). If I had to substitute ingredients, I would recommend not cilantro, but maybe watercress, arugula or baby spinach for pápalo, crusty baguette for the bun, and canned chipotles and jalapeños instead of homemade.
Puebla Style Cemita Sandwiches –
Printable recipe: Puebla Style Cemita Sandwich
Ingredients (for four sandwiches)
4 Cemita buns (if not available, use extra crusty bread, such as baguette sections)
4 breaded pork or chicken cutlets, or 8 slices of ham, or four generous portions of pickled beef shank, pork roast, or cooked and mashed potatoes. Freshly cooked or re-heated
1 cup Oaxaca style quesillo; pulled into threads (if not available, use fresh stringy Mozzarella)
2 avocados; washed
¼ white onion; peeled and sliced finely
Pápalo leaves; washed and removed from stems (if not available, omit or use watercress, arugula, or baby spinach)
Sweet chipotle peppers (homemade, or if not available, use canned in adobo, or omit)
Pickled jalapeño peppers and vegetables (try my recipe, or canned)
Olive oil, optional
Using a serrated knife, open buns by cutting horizontally in half. Slice the avocados right before using, to keep from discolouring, and arrange about one quarter of an avocado on each bun bottom (photo below, left). The meat or potatoes go on top, making sure that they cover the whole bun, and even overflow; top with cheese (it partially melts from the hot meat/potatoes). Follow with sliced onions, and then, another layer of avocado (photo below, right, with pork roast slices):
Add a few pápalo leaves and, if using, top with chipotle peppers; a drizzle with olive oil is also optional. In the photo below, left, the prepared cemita sandwich with pork roast and sweet chipotle peppers. If sweet chipotle peppers are not available, it is fine to use canned chipotles in adobo sauce, as in the photo below, right, with ham slices, and a side of pickled jalapeños and veggies:
Close the sandwich with the top half of the bun (below with pork roast):
Serve immediately. Photo below, with ham:
And the classic, with breaded pork cutlet, as shown at the top of the post, and below:
The recipe is listed as enough for four sandwiches, as opposed to four portions, because they are so well served, that one half and a side of pickled veggies, salad, or soup, could be enough for a hearty lunch.
Full disclosure: I had never tried pápalo before, and I was on “team hate” when I first tasted a leaf, but I must admit, it has grown on me since, and it is strangely nice when combined with the sweet chipotles and other ingredients inside a cemita bun. My husband, on the other hand, really liked the flavour, although he agreed that it is too strong to eat on its own.
I am sharing my post at Thursday Favourite Things #492, with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.