by Kate Heyhoe
I first discovered epazote in the marketplace of Mexico's San Miguel de Allende, a picturesque mountain town popular with artisans, American ex-patriots, and students. Every day, after my Spanish language classes, I'd pass through the market, nibble on some street food, and pick up provisions for dinner. After a few weeks, I was treated like a regular, and the merchants sometimes threw bonus items into my bags of vegetables and fruits—an extra tomato, an avocado, a bunch of cilantro, or some other little goodie. That's how I got to know epazote.
Epazote (eh-pah-ZOE-teh) grows wild in the US as well as Mexico, and the Mexican name derives from the Aztec word epazotl. It bears long, pointy, serrated leaves. North of the border we call it wormseed or pigweed, and you can find it growing wild just about everywhere—from New York backyards to California highway medians. Older leaves have a strong aroma and pungent flavor and should be used judiciously so that they don't overpower other flavors, but young leaves are less assertive.
Epazote is also known as the bean herb, because it's a carminative (meaning it reduces gas; peppermint and fennelseeds are other carminatives). Mexicans add a sprig or two to beans, which helps make them more digestible and adds a deep, unique flavor. Some people say epazote is an acquired taste, but if so, then I'm a convert: I love it in beans, eggs, and cheese dishes. Mexican cooking expert Diana Kennedy says that to cook black beans without epazote is "unthinkable," adding that when a recipe calls for epazote, there is no substitute.
Look for bunches of the ragged, jagged leaves in Mexican and Central American markets. Dried epazote is available, but it doesn't hit quite the same flavor spot as fresh epazote. Still, if it's all you can find, crush a small amount into your next pot of beans to experience the general flavor.
While black beans are common in the Yucatan, pinto beans are the choice of north central Mexico. There's something quite comforting about a pot of pintos, slow simmering into a naturally sweet, creamy broth. And besides being served plain with just the pot broth, a spoon and perhaps a crumble of cheese, a pot of pintos yields an extensive array of other dishes: refried beans, huevos rancheros, burritos, and filled tortillas.
The recipes that follow are good introductions to both the unique taste of epazote and the Mexican home staple, pinto beans. I often make a Pot of Pintos for the week, and turn it into a myriad of other dishes, including one of my personal favorites, Eggs with Epazote and Frijoles. If you're not familiar with the cheeses used in these recipes, check out my column on Mexican Cheeses: The Whole Enchilada. And if you can't find epazote in your area, don't worry: these recipes taste good even without the epazote, although it does add that authentic flavor of Mexico south of the border.
Kate's Global Kitchen for May, 2000:
Mi Casa Es Su Casa Month:
Celebrating Mexican Home Cooking
Also visit Global Destinations: Mexico for more Mexican Recipes.
Copyright © 2000, 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
Modified August 2007
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