Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alien Ingredient #4: Epazote

"Looks like a Chenopodium, doesn't it?" I asked myself when I bought this bunch of epazote the other day because it sure looks like one of the herbs in that family, like the lambsquarters (C. album) that we have growing all over the back yard.

Funny that I should think that. It turns out that epazote was until recently classified by taxonomists as a Chenopodium, the same family that contains quinoa (C. quinoa). This native of southern Mexico, Central America, and South America has been moved from C. ambrosioides to Dysphania ambrosioides, for the one of you who actually cares about this kind of stuff.

I've long known of epazote, principally from reading in my Mexican Spanish-language cookbooks and in the Foods of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. I've also heard that it grows as a weed around these parts, but I have never encountered it growing in the wild in any of my foraging expeditions.

Epazote has been available for years from my produce company, but their price for it has always been prohibitive. And I have seen lots of dried epazote at various tiendas about town, but when I try a new herb, I want to try it fresh. Now that Food Maxx has big bunches of it for cheap, I brought this big bundle to the restaurant to check out.

It's a strong herb for sure, reeking to heaven of shoe polish, kerosene, and other scents that would warn most humans not to eat the stuff. The word "noxious" comes to mind. The taste of the raw leaf is a lot milder and not all that offensive. Blanched in water, the medicinal and industrial flavor comes right back. Sautéeing it doesn't help either. It is clear that a little bit goes a long way. And I read that the younger leaves are less potent than the older. The presence of panicles of flowers on this bunch would argue that this is pretty mature epazote.

Traditionally, it is used for its carminative (anti-flatulent) effect when cooking black beans. I will certainly add epazote to my beans in the future to see how it changes the flavor, but I don't have high hopes for it. I suspect that it is one of those things that you either grow up eating or you don't eat at all.

Vote: Mom, do I really have to finish all my epazote?

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