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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fair
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Papalo has the power: One farmer tries to turn Madisonians on to the Mexican herb
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Credit:Holly Whittlef

When Juan Gonzalez left Puebla, Mexico, in 2004 for una aventura - an adventure - he made sure to bring one very important thing to his new home in Wisconsin: papalo.

A staple in Mexican cooking, papalo is a distinctive, strong herb and now a weekly summer feature at Gonzalez's Los Abuelos Farley Farm market stand. Its flavor is rich and citrusy, a unique cross between arugula and cilantro.

Papalo is a tabletop accessory in Mexico. Bunches of the fresh herb are commonly stuffed into jars with cilantro and parsley that reside on the dinner table for topping homemade tortas, tacos and tamales. Most often, though, you'll find the pungent green sprigs in cemitas - toasted Pueblan sandwiches pressed with spicy pork, lettuce, cheese and avocado.

For Gonzalez, growing papalo is a way to introduce people to something they've never seen or tasted before. With help from the Farley Center Farm Incubator in Verona, an initiative that provides new farmers with land, tools, education and marketing support, Gonzalez began farming three years ago alongside his sister and brother-in-law. Together, they harvest tomatoes, cilantro, beans, onions, squash blossoms, scallions and a variety of greens on their group farm in Verona, tapping into knowledge instilled in them by their mother, a lifelong farmer. Their Los Abuelos Farley Farm is chemical- and fertilizer-free in addition to being certified organic through the Midwest Organic Services Association.

Perhaps their greatest point of pride, however, is that they are the only papalo grower in the Madison area.

Gonzalez has discovered Wisconsinites are a bit wary of this mysterious plant. Some people think that papalo's flat green leaves have a heavy, almost soapy, aroma, and many consider the herb an acquired taste.

Though very few people have purchased papalo while browsing Gonzalez's stand at the Northside and South Madison Farmers' Markets, that number is slowly growing. He is converting market visitors into papalo eaters with the help of his sprightly 8-year-old niece, who stands right next to her uncle greeting customers with an irresistibly wide smile that's lost a few teeth courtesy of the tooth fairy. Together, they provide customers with suggestions for incorporating papalo into common Mexican dishes - such as papalo leaves sprinkled atop burritos or tacos and chopped papalo mixed with pico de gallo, salsa or guacamole.

There is just one way Gonzalez doesn't recommend eating papalo.

"No ensalada de papalo!" he laughs, emphasizing that a little bit of papalo goes a long way.

Gonzalez does recommend a deconstructed guacamole salad with papalo. Generous chunks of in-season tomatoes and avocado are tossed with a small handful of papalo leaves and drizzled with lime juice, garlic and olive oil. This recipe makes for an easy summer salad and a papalo-themed aventura nueva for the tongue.

Guacamole Salad with Papalo
Prep time: 5 minutes

  • 5 roma tomatoes, deseeded and diced
  • 2 large avocados, diced
  • 1 small red onion, finely diced
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup papalo leaves, chopped
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • juice of 1 lime
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

In a medium-size bowl, mix tomatoes, avocado, onion, garlic and papalo leaves. Add in olive oil, lime and spices, and toss until mixture is coated.

The salad can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days. Makes 4 servings.

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