Unless you cook a lot of Mexican food, you may not be familiar with the herb epazote (pronounced eh-pah-ZOH-tay). Epazote is a popular Central American herb that has been used by native Mexicans for hundreds of years. It has a strong musky flavor that provides a unique taste to Mexican and other Latin American cuisines. The herb belongs to the large family of herbs and vegetables, including amaranth, spinach, quinoa and beets. Some common names for it include wormseed, pazote and Mexican tea.
Rather than a culinary plant, epazote is usually viewed as a medicinal herb. The leaves used in cooking counter indigestion and flatulence when combined with beans or any fiber or protein rich foods. Epazote is very low in calories with 100 grams of leaves containing just 32 calories and 3.8 grams of dietary fiber.
The leaves contain many monoterpene compounds including ascaridole (a colorless liquid with a pungent smell) which is toxic to intestinal worms such as roundworm, hookworms and pinworms. Native Mayans were known to drink an infusion of epazote leaves on a regular basis to keep free of worm infestation. Epazote has a strong pungent flavor that is compared to petroleum or kerosene.
The young leaves of the herb are an excellent source of folic acid, providing 54 percent of daily recommended values. The herb contains good amounts of calcium (27 percent of RDA), manganese, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, and selenium as well as the B-vitamins pyridoxine and riboflavin.
Epazote is available year round in stores that carry Latin American herbs. If buying fresh, look for small, young tender leaves. The mature leaves are more pungent and strong scented. Avoid large, flower stems that have yellow or wilted leaves. Store unwashed greens wrapped in a dampened towel in the refrigerator like other greens. Epazote is sometimes available fresh at Walmart. Dried leaves can be purchased in spice stores, but they aren’t as good. If you can’t find epazote locally try online from gourmetsleuth.com, mexgrocer.com, amazon.com, as well as many other retailers.
If you find that you like epazote, try growing it. You can purchase seeds next spring from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow and grow your own. Beware though before you choose to introduce it to your garden — it is an easy growing annual and considered by some to be a weedy invasive plant.
If you are using fresh leaves, wash them in cold water as with other greens. Just one to two sprigs are needed to scent food. Epazote is particularly noted to mix well with black beans to improve digestion, reduce the natural carminative properties of beans and allow the potent aroma of epazote to cut the heaviness of the beans. Epazote should be used in small quantities.
Fresh epazote leaves can be added to corn-based recipes such as corn dumplings or cornmeal cakes. Epazote is used in traditional Mexican mole sauce along with tomato, bell pepper, tomatillo and annatto.
Mexican black beans with epazote
1 pound dried black beans
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
2 large sprigs fresh epazote (or 2 tablespoons dried)
1/2 pound chopped fresh chorizo sausage
1 diced onion
2 diced carrots
2 diced celery stalks
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Soak black beans overnight in cold water to cover. Drain and rinse.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the beans, chicken stock and water, and epazote in a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil on the stove top, skim off foam, then cover and bake for 1 1/2 hours.
In a large, heavy skillet, brown chorizo sausage. Remove the chorizo, leaving the fat in the pan. Add onion, carrots, celery stalks, and garlic to the pan and cook over medium heat until the vegetables become soft.
Remove the pot of beans from the oven and stir in the vegetables and chorizo, along with chile powder, ground cumin, and salt to taste.
Cover and bake for one hour, or until the beans are soft.
Quesadillas with epazote
Preparation time: 5 minutes, makes 6 servings
6 to 12 thin slices Monterey Jack cheese
6 corn or flour tortillas
6 small sprigs epazote
1 can (4 ounces) chopped green chilies, drained, optional
Lay one or two slices of cheese on half of each tortilla. Top with sprig of epazote and chilies, if using. Fold each tortilla in half; wrap in microwaveable paper towels. Microwave on 75 percent power until cheese is melted, 20 to 30 seconds. Alternatively, cook in skillet sprayed with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Heat quesadillas, turning once or twice, until cheese is melted. Cut into halves if desired. Serve with salsa.
Nutrition information per serving: 235 calories, 14 grams fat, 350 milligrams sodium.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.