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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Epazote

The herb of the week is Epazote. (chinopodium ambrosioides)

Pronounced eh-puh-ZOE-tay

By show of hands, how many of you have been growing this and using it for years?

Ok, how many of you have ever grown it or used it?

Ok, has anyone heard of it?

I hadn’t either, until I saw it at the garden center last spring.

Now, showing me a new herb I have never heard of, all potted and ready to take home is like waving a pork chop in front of a pit bull. Once I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I didn’t know what it was, what it tasted like, what you used it for, or where, how, when, or even why to grow it.

All that didn’t matter. It was new, it was there. It was mine.

So, then I got home, with my new Epazote plant, and looked it up.
First I googled it. That wasn’t encouraging.
The first thing I found was Wikiopedia which said, among other things:

Epazote essential oil contains ascaridole (up to 70%), Ascaridole is toxic and has a pungent, not very pleasant flavor. In pure form, it is an explosive.

Whoa Nellie! What was I getting myself in for here? Now if I were Alton Brown, or the Mythbusters, then a toxic, explosive, pungent unpleasant tasting herb may make a great TV episode, but I’m not. I’m just plain old me.

But Diann and I both have a weakness when it comes to plants. Once we have them, we feel a stewardship, an obligation to Nature, or God, or Karma, to care for them, nurture them and help them grow.

So, what were we going to do with this plant? I figured we could just plant it in the garden and see what happens. But then I read this:

Epazote has never caught on. It is just too hard to get past that "old sock" aroma”

And this:

“the name Epazote comes from the Nahuatl word for skunk, epatl,”

And this:

Epazote is also known as: Skunkweed, Wormseed, Mexican tea, West Indian goosefoot, Jerusalem parsley, Hedge mustard, Sweet pigweed”

And this:

Epazote self-seeds readily and is considered highly invasive. You might want to consider growing it in a pot.”

And then, I looked at a picture and saw how truly unattractive it is, I talked it over with Diann and we decided it probably would not be a good addition to our regular garden. So, what to do with it now?

We had some landscaping that was done with red lava rock and we had been trying to figure out what to put in the middle of a big open space we had. A birdbath? A stepping stone? A gazing globe? A garden gnome?

With nothing but rock for 3’ in any direction, and a weed barrier under the rock, we figure this would be a safe place to put a pot of something that we didn’t want to spread.

So, there it sat. It grew strong and healthy, flowered, seeded, and finally, as the season came to end, it curled up and died.

And what did we use it for? How much did we pick? Did we dry it or freeze it?

Ok, I have a confession. I’m a big old chicken.

Explosive, toxic plants just don’t inspire warm fuzzy ideas in my mind, so the plant lived, grew and died, and we never so much as plucked a single leaf.

However, since it seeded off, and I noticed it did this quite liberally, I’m sure that pot will have Epazote in it next year.

I’m trying to work up the courage to play with it a little bit. After all, although I chickened out, my research turned up some interesting facts about it, so maybe I can talk myself into it.

Want to know what I found out?

OK, here we go…

Epazote, technically an annual, is an unusual herb that is essential for any chef serious about authentic Mexican cooking. In its native Mexico and was common in the pre-Hispanic cooking of the Aztecs and Mayas. I say technically an annual, because most of the sites I found that talk about growing it mention that once it’s planted, you can expect it to be there for ever. So although it’s an annual, it acts, for all intents and purposes, like a perennial.

You can use Epazote leaves and seeds in a variety of dishes. It has a strong and pungent flavor with a light hint of mint. Although Epazote is poisonous in large quantities, it is used in moderation in many recipes requiring beans. It’s no surprise to see Epazote used to flavor beans, as its anti-flatulent properties come in quite handy. It has become a distinct flavor in Mexican cuisine and is now used to season a variety of dishes including beans, soups, salads and quesadillas

Epazote is also said to cure an upset stomach

The older leaves have a stronger flavor and should be used sparingly. Younger leaves have a milder, yet richer flavor.

Epazote has a distinct taste that cannot be replaced by other herbs. If you do not have access to it, you can leave it out. If you leave it out, use more of the other seasonings to balance out the loss of the Epazote.

You can find this herb in most Latin markets or Hispanic grocery stores. There are many places online that sell dried Epazote which is a satisfactory alternative if fresh is not available.

If you are pregnant, nursing, or have health problems, you should avoid use of this herb, as toxicity varies from one situation to the next.

If you want to attempt to grow some, or if, like me, you just can’t pass up the challenge of a new plant, Epazote is not fussy about soil, but wants full sun and good drainage. As with most herbs, a less-than-rich soil produces the best and most concentrated flavor in the leaves. It can grow fairly large, up to 2 to 3 feet tall, so give it a good-size pot.
Sow a few seeds in the pot, and after emergence thin to the best plant. Germination rates are usually very good, and seedlings should appear within a few days of sowing the seed.
Once it is planted, there is little work required as the plant has its own insecticidal and protective chemistry.
When harvesting, cut the center stem first, to encourage bushing. Prune the plant frequently to prevent flowering and assure a continuing supply of leaf, but don't harvest more than half the plant at a time

OK, so there you have the lowdown on Epazote. Maybe you can see why, although mine grew very well, I couldn’t work up the courage to use any yet.

But if you are brave and bold, and want to see for yourself, you can get some, either fresh, or dried, from the local ethnic market. The herb is used to flavor corn, black beans, mushrooms, fish, soups, stews, chili sauces, shellfish, and freshwater snails. (yum, all it takes is a bit of toxic skunkweed to make snails taste better… who knew?)

So, to try it yourself, without too much out of pocket, make up a batch of black beans to really taste the distinct flavor it adds

I have to make it clear that none of my usual sources had much to say about Epazote, so I am running a bit blind here, but I did find this recipe:

(I personally always soak beans overnight when I cook them, but this is the way one person makes them.)

Black Beans with Epazote

1lb uncooked black beans
6 cups hot water
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1 serrano chile, seeded and finely diced
1 sprig of Epazote, finely chopped
1/2 of an onion, diced
1 teaspoon cumin
salt to taste
Rinse beans and discard any debris. Place beans in the bottom of the pot and cover with the hot water. Bring beans to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer and cover. Simmer for about 2 hours. Add in additional ingredients and simmer for another hour, or until beans are soft and a broth has formed.
Serve beans with a slotted spoon for a side dish. Or, serve in a bowl with the broth and add in some cooked, cubed chicken and some salsa for a main dish.

And Chef James at Food came through for me with this one.
I didn’t do the measurement conversions, this is verbatim how I got it from Chef James.
Note, Several of the ingredients may not be readily available here, but it may give you an idea of how the herb is used, and in what proportion to the other ingredients. Oaxaca is the name of both a state in Mexico and that state's capital city

Mole Verde Con Espinazo Recipe

(Recipe courtesy of the late Esperanza Chavarria Blando, who owned Restaurante Quickly, and represented Oaxaca at national cooking expos, for three decades)

• ½ kilo Frijol Blanco
(small white beans)
• 1 Garlic Clove
• ¼ Onion
• 2 tsp Salt

• 1 kilo Espinazo De Puerco (pork spine)
• ½ kilo Other Pork Meat
• 2 large Garlic Cloves
• ¼ large Onion
• 2 tsp Salt

• 2 large Garlic Cloves
• ¼ large Onion

• ½ kilo Masa

• 3 leaves of Hierba Santa
• 12 leaves of Epazote
• 1 bunch Cilantro
• 1 small bunch Parsley

• 3 Cloves
• 3 Whole Peppercorns
• 12 Green Tomatoes (approx)
• 9 Serrano Chilies (approx)*
*Buy several extra. Their strength depends on the time of year they're harvested…cooler weather means less potent!

Clean beans while checking for little stones.
Soak overnight and cook with the garlic, onion and salt the following day until beans are soft, or cook in a pressure cooker for ¾ to one hour without soaking.

Cook the meat in water with the garlic, onion and salt, covered, for about 20 minutes or until soft.

While meat and bean are cooking, grill on a griddle or bbq the garlic cloves and onion and then put aside.

Spice Mixture:
Mix in blender the cloves, peppercorns, halved green tomatoes, serrano
chilies and the grilled garlic and onion, with about ½ cup water. Blend thoroughly.

Strain the mixture into a large deep pan already well heated with oil.

Go back to the blender, add about a cup of water and reblend in order to completely empty the blender jar, and then strain this final mixture into the pan as well. Allow this green mixture to simmer 10 to 15 minutes.

Add about 2 cups of the pork broth into the above green mixture, and continue simmering.

Mix half of the masa with ¾ cup of water in blender.

Add this masa mixture through a strainer to the green simmering mixture. Stir so the masa doesn't form balls.

If you want to make the green mixture thicker, mix more masa with water in the blender and add through a strainer.

Put the herbs in blender with enough water to blend, and blend well.

Add the meat (without the onion and garlic) to the green sauce, then the strained beans, and finally the blended herbs.

Add salt to taste.

Because leaf size varies, you may notice that sometimes the verde doesn't look very green. When this happens, simply blend a small amount of herbs and add to the final sauce.

Hierba santa also known as yerba santa, hierba santa, Mexican pepperleaf

Abundant in the south-central region of Mexico, the palm-sized, velvety leaves of this anise-scented, bushy perennial make fragrant wrappers for grilled or steamed fish dishes, such as the Pescado en Hoja Santa of Veracruz, where it is quite commonly known as acuyo. It is also used as a flavoring in green moles, a tamale wrapping, and with chicken and shrimp dishes. As a home remedy, it is considered anti-inflammatory and prepared as a tea for stomach cramps and as a poultice for skin irritations

Finally, I found this one, that looks interesting:

Epazote Vegetable Pancakes with Black Bean Tropical Fruit Sauce

Epazote adds an interesting depth of flavor to these pancakes that is balanced by the sweet fruit sauce.
• 2 t. baking powder
• 2 t. sugar
• 2 T. chopped fresh Epazote
• 1 c all-purpose flour
• 1 c rice flour
• 1 T. sliced green onion
• 1 T. snipped chives
• 1 t. salt
• 1 t. pepper
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 2 c milk
• 2 c shredded mixed vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, red potatoes, zucchini, etc.)
• 1/4 c butter, melted
• Oil
Black Bean Tropical Fruit Sauce:
• 2 c julienned vegetables (carrots, celery, a mix of peppers)
• 1 onion, sliced
• 1 c cooked black beans
• 1 c diced mixed fruit (mango, pineapple and papaya)
• 3 T. butter
• 3 T. diced tomatoes
• 1 t. chili paste
• 1 t. minced garlic
• salt and pepper
• 4 T. chopped fresh Epazote

For pancakes: combine baking powder, sugar, Epazote, flours, green onion, chives, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the eggs, milk, and mixed vegetables, and combine. Add the melted butter and stir just until it is incorporated, without overmixing.
Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet. Pour in the batter and cook pancakes for about 2 to 3 minutes or until they are golden brown on both sides (Note: pancakes are ready to turn when dry bubbles form on top.)

For sauce, place the mixed vegetable and onion in the skillet over medium heat for 1 - 2 minutes. Add the black beans and mixed fruit. Add the butter and tomato, chili paste and garlic. Stir and continue cooking 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, pour the sauce over the pancakes and top with chopped fresh Epazote.
So, there you have it, cooking with Epazote can be easy…. (I’ll keep telling myself that and maybe by next summer I will believe it.)

Medicinally, Epazote is used to prevent flatulence but also in the treatment of amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, malaria, chorea, hysteria, catarrh, and asthma.
It is antihelminthic, that is, it kills intestinal worms, and was once listed for this use in the US Pharmacopoeia. It is also cited as an antispasmodic and abortifacient.

Although I never advocate anyone using my blog as a medical journal, let me add another caution here.

Epazote can be toxic if used in excess. Please do not self treat any of the above with this herb.

Although I always suggest treating with herbs only under the direction of a licensed professional, I need to add an extra warning here.

Do not use this herb medicinally without the advice consent and guidance of a professional. Please.

Magic, on the other hand, is up to you, please use it at your own discretion for protection, hex-breaking and road-opening spells.

As is often the case, the reputed magical properties are analogic to the medicinal ones. Epazote is said to help us digest the obstacles in life and removes spiritual parasites. It is used as a smudge/spray for getting rid of residual negativity from our houses – it is often highly recommended to smudge/spray the house with it after situations that are highly stressful for the whole family, like after a family member’s death, after a divorce, etc.

This is a plant that is said to be highly related to the world of the Dead, so a cup of its tea will make a wonderful offering in your ancestor’s altar, or when asking for help to those who have crossed over to the world of spirits. A bundle of dry Epazote might be used as protection to keep nightmares caused by spirits away, and to protect from spiritual attacks.

So, although I am not quite sure I am ready to embrace it wholeheartedly, Epazote is definitely an herb I want to continue to explore.

If anyone has any personal experience with this herb, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

1 comment:

  1. I just got some from a seed trade. I'm going to try growing it in a pot and adding it to beans.