Chronicler Diego de Landa mentioned chaya in 1566, when he observed that the leaves were especially delicious when cooked with plenty of bacon. What isn’t? Chayas fritas is an excellent side dish; it also stars in the scrambled egg dish Huevos revueltos con chaya. Chaya continues in popularity to the present, with exuberant chefs pushing the envelope of its many possibilities: how about a chaya margarita? Or chaya mousse? Deep fat-fried whole chaya leaves also appear as a decorative and edible garnish on many “fusion” dishes at contemporary restaurants. Chaya is slowly becoming available in southern-tier states in the United States, but if you can’t find it, my favorite substitute is kale, which is hearty, robust, and nutty, much like chaya.
Prepare ahead note: Chayas fritas keeps well under refrigeration for a couple of days. Heat a bit of oil or lard in a covered skillet, add chaya, cover, and cook until heated through. Use leftovers to make Huevos revueltos con chaya.
For the bacon and sofrito
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) Spanish olive oil
- 4 oz. (114 g) smoked slab bacon, cut into large dice
- 1 cup (170 g) red onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup (140 g) red bell pepper, seeded, cut into small dice
- 5 medium cloves garlic (1 oz. / 30 g), peeled and finely chopped
- 1 medium chile habanero (1/4 oz. / 7 g), seeded and minced (Substitute: chile serrano)
For sautéing the chaya and finishing
- 10 1/2 oz. (300 g) fresh chaya leaves (Substitute: chard or kale), thick stems removed and cut into chiffonade or coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
- 1/2 tablespoon (3 g) sea salt
- 1/2 tablespoon (2.5g) freshly ground black pepper
Fry bacon and sofrito
Choose a large, heavy casserole equipped with a tight-fitting lid. Heat the olive oil in the casserole, add the bacon, and cook, uncovered, over low heat until the bacon is thoroughly browned, 6-8 minutes. Remove the bacon and set aside; reserve the cooking fat.
Adjust the heat to medium. Add the remaining sofrito ingredients to the reserved cooking fat and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent and the bell pepper is softened, 2-3 minutes.
Sauté chaya and finish
Add the chaya, stir to thoroughly incorporate into the cooked vegetables, reduce the heat to low, and cover. Cook 20-25 minutes, or until the chaya is tender, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Return the bacon to the casserole and toss to incorporate. Add the remaining ingredients; check the seasonings and serve.
Yield: Approximately 6 servings
Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition