Thursday, January 29, 2009

Epazote: The Secret Mexican Herb

My neighbors like to come over to see my garden and all of the different things that I grow. I can see in their eyes just how different my garden is from theirs. They really only recognize a few of the vegetables and herbs that I grow.

Our farm is 25 minutes out from downtown Boquete, my neighbors are all locals and also usually farmers; lovely and friendly people. They grow coffee, corn and beans and sometimes tomatoes. Not the herbs and vegetables that I grow, but when the ladies come over for a visit and wander through my garden, they all recognize epazote.

They know it as a medicine that cures

stomach issues, gas and worms (another name for it is wormseed). They use it as a tea. I personally have never tried it as tea. They ask me what I use it for and when I tell them that it is for cooking...well like me with epazote tea, they never thought of that.

Epazote is mostly found in Mexican-Caribbean cooking and is known as one of the three secret ingredients in their cuisine, along with cumin and cilantro. In Mexico, it is not only highly regarded for its unique flavor, but it is also well known as a carminative (which means that it reduces gas). It is native to Latin America and is one of those herbs, like cilantro, that takes some time to get used to the flavor. Many TV star chefs have begun to use and promote it's use (same with culantro) making it a more well know ingredient north of the Rio Grande.

When it comes to cooking, there is simply no substitution. It has a unique flavor and it is wonderful added to beans, soups, stews, mushrooms and egg dishes. It is great in quesadillas, minced up and tossed with the cheese before melting in the tortilla. It has to be cooked in order to meld in with other flavors. It is just too pungent raw.

So besides the health and social benefits of adding epazote to your cooking, it is just fun to try new ingredients and experience new tastes. One of my favorite TV star chefs is Rick Bayless, who specializes in Mexican cooking. He has many wonderful articles with ideas and recipes for epazote on his website. Here is the link to his EPAZOTE recipe page.

Since epazote is "known" as the bean herb, below is a great bean recipe to get you started with epazote. But first I want to give you some guidelines on cooking really good beans.

Bean Basics:

Because of where we live, both Panama and in the mountains, no one can really be sure of how old or how dry the beans are. It is very difficult for me to tell you how long your beans will take without a pressure cooker. Mine took about 3-4 hours.

If you have an earthenware pot, use it. It will give the beans great flavor. Make sure it does not have a lead based glaze.

Cook them slowly. Bring them to a boil, lower the heat, put a lid on at an angle to let out some steam.
If you are using a pressure cooker, the last two points are ....pointless. I use a pressure cooker. I can not live without it. A pressure cooker saves you on your gas bill, time and keeps all of the flavor in the beans. You will not have to soak the beans which means that you could decide at 5pm and be eating them by 7pm for dinner! I think that it is the best way to cook beans, taking only about 45 minutes to cook after coming up to pressure. Email me if you have one and do not know how to use it. I will talk you through it and it will change your cooking life!!

Do not add salt until they are almost completely tender. It makes them tough and less digestible.

Beans taste better the next day. As do most stews!

Mexican Black Beans

1 pound of black beans, rinsed and sorted well for rock or earth and soaked over night if needed. And rinsed again the soaking.
1 small onion, chopped or 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 T. of some kind of oil, butter or lard
2-3 sprigs of epazote
Salt and Pepper to taste

Place beans and onions or garlic in a large pot that has a lid. Place about 12 cups of fresh cold water and the oil in with the beans. Bring to a boil then immediately turn down the heat, bring to a simmer and place the lid on at an angle to allow some steam out. Check on them about every 1/2 hour or so, adding more water and a quick stir with a wooden spoon* if needed. After two 1/2 hours, taste the beans to see if they are around the "al dente" stage. They should need about a 1/2 hour more of cooking, this is the time to add the epazote and S&P. When they are tender, there should be plenty of soupy liquid.

*An old Mexican wive's tale says that a metal spoon for stirring will make the beans stick to the pot.

Breakfast Beans with Scrambled Eggs and Epazote

This is a great breakfast dish that uses some of the left over Mexican Black Beans a day or two later.


Pretend there are some nice warm tortillas alongside this dish, I was out!

1-2 T oil
1/4 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 hot peppers, minced
1 1/2 T epazote, minced

In a smallish pot saute up the above ingredients until they are somewhat tender.
Then Add 1 1/2 cups of cooked Mexican Black Beans(recipe above).
Salt and pepper to taste.
Bring to a slow boil and then simmer for about 20 minutes until the flavors meld. They should remain soupy, so add some water or bean broth if needed.

Meanwhile, Scramble up some eggs.

Place beans into a bowl and top with the eggs and garnish with a little cilantro, maybe a squeeze of lemon or lime if you like and serve with hot tortillas.


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