What herb, popular in Mexican cooking and named for a smelly animal, grows wild in New York City's Central Park?
Si, si, it's epazote (pronounced eh-pah-ZOH-tay), a flavorful, leafy green herb native to central and southern Mexico. The name comes from Nahuatl, an Aztec language: epatl means skunk, and tzotl, sweat. It's also called skunkweed, pig weed or wormseed.
First, epazote is the essential companion herb to black beans. Once you've tried cooking beans with epazote, you'll never want them any other way. It's also a wonderful addition to mole verde (a green mole made of tomatillos and green chiles) and split pea soup.
Second, in addtion to enhancing the flavor of beans, epazote is an anti-flatulent, reducing what Julia Child used to call the rooty-toot-toot.
My local Latino grocery store carries fresh epazote in the produce department; it often looks wilted and sad, like cilantro, but it's perfectly fine for cooking (treat it like parsley — trim off the stem ends, refresh in cold water, and store in the refrigerator, wrapped in a paper towel inside a plastic bag). I don't always get to the specialty market, so I keep dried epazote on my spice rack. The small jar from Penzeys sells for $2.19, and lasts for months.
Fresh or dried, epazote is a bit on the strong side; it can overwhelm more delicate flavors and, again like cilantro, is a love-it-or-hate-it taste. Interestlingly, I'm not a cilantro person but I love epazote, which to me tastes a bit like citrus and mint (I've also heard the taste described as petroleum or turpentine). In large doses, far more than you'd ever use for cooking, epazote is poisonous; if you're pregnant, use sparingly or not at all.
For beans that really taste like Mexico, try adding this ancient herb, whether you grow it or buy it — or forage for it in Central Park.
Frijoles de la olla (home-cooked beans)
Black beans and epazote go hand-in-hand. If you can find fresh epazote in your market, use a large sprig or two instead of the dried herb. This recipe makes 7 cups, which can be turned into rice and beans, or a wonderful burrito filling, by adding your favorite spices (cumin, chili powder, etc.). To make a great black bean soup, puree the cooked beans, flavor with cumin to taste, and add some chicken or vegetable stock. Cooked beans can be frozen.
1 lb black beans
2 Tbsp vegetable oil (or bacon drippings)
1 medium onion, cut into large dice
2 Tbsp dried epazote, or 2 sprigs fresh
1-2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
Check through the beans and remove any stones. Place in a large bowl, cover by at least two inches with cold water, and let soak overnight.
To cook, drain the beans and add them to a large stock pot with oil, onion and epazote. Add 2-1/2 quarts of water (you can substitute part vegetable or chicken stock, if you wish), and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, and cook, partially covered, until the beans are tender, 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hours, depending on the freshness of the beans. Skim off foam as necessary during the early part of the cooking process. Add water if the mixture becomes too thick. When the beans are tender, add 1 tsp salt and simmer for a few minutes. Then, add more salt to taste. If using fresh epazote, remove the sprig before serving.
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