Friday, July 20, 2007

EPAZOTE: An herb crucial to Central American cooking is an easy-care herb gardeners dream of.

Epazote, crucial to Central American cooking, is one of those easy-care herbs gardeners dream about. It prefers poor soil and thrives on neglect. You may not even notice it growing there - and might mistake it for a common weed - but when you brush against it, its startling methylic odor changes your mind. In the kitchen, epazote makes the difference between a "good try" and a delicious authenthic dish.

As late as the early 1980's, this herb was found only in groceries serving a large Hispanic population. Also known as Mexican Tea, it originated in South America, spread northward through Central American, and now has naturalized in many parts of the United States - particularly where it spread from former plantings. Yet, until quite recently, seeds for home gardeners were hard to find. Today, many seed companies with a serious herb section carry Chenopodium ambrosoides.

Growing it is easy. An assertive annual, once started it will self-seed almost any place, even areas with very cold winters, where it readily germinates every spring. For top production, newly purchased seeds should either be sown in the fall or put in the freezer for a couple of weeks before planting.

Epazote does best in full sun and poor, well-drained soil. If you plant the seed half an inch deep, and thin the young plants to a foot apart, it will be four feet tall by mid-summer and produce tiny yellow-green flowers. A member of the goosefoot family and a close relative of lamb's quarters, its young leaves and shoots can be cooked as nutritious greens. Leaves of any age can be used as a seasoning.

While epazote's freshly picked flavor leaves a distinct unusual aftertaste - even unsettling after the first time its tried - a finely minced sprig added to salsa or dried bean recipes creates just the right subtle overtones. It dresses up a lot of recipes through South and Central America, and it's indigenous to Mexican cuisine where it seasons many tortilla concoctions, a wide range of sauces, and almost all bean dishes.

Epazote, as a folk remedy to relieve the gas which often accompanies legume meals, has been scientifically proven. Now a pharmaceutical crop, specific oils in Chenopodium ambrosoides are distilled, making if far more powerful than the few leaves we add for taste, and used in the medicinal world to purge the intestinal system. And therein lies another of its common names: American wormseed.

As a cooking herb, a couple plants are more than enough. For winter use, the entire plant can be snipped off before it blooms and hung upside down in a shady, dry location. When the foliage is thoroughly dry, crumble and stores it in an airtight jar in a closed cupboard. The stumps left in the garden will continue to grow for the rest of the summer, and will seed next year's crops before winter arrives.

Pinto Bean & Rice Stew

If you're so inclined, you can zip up this hearty stew with hot sauce or peppers.

4 cups water
1 cup dried pinto beans, washed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh epazote, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups cooked white rice

In a large pot, bring water, beans garlic, and onion to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until beans are soft. Add chili powder, cumin, parsley, epazote, tomatoes, and salt, and cook over medium low heat for 15 minutes. Stir in rice and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

V PER SERVING: 243 CAL (4% from fat), 8g PROT, 1g FAT, 52g CARB, 440mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 7g FIBER

Tortilla Casserole

It's fine to use stale tortillas for this easy stovetop casserole.

10 corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch squares
6 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 to 3 jalapeƱos, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon fresh epazote, chopped, (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1/2 cup water
3 ounces cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

1. Preheat oven to 350° and lightly pan spray a baking sheet. Spread tortilla squares over prepared sheet and toast for 20 minutes, or until no longer pliable.

2. In a large skillet, cook onions and jalapeƱos in 2 tablespoons water for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add tomatoes, epazote, and remaining water, and cook over medium high heat for 10 minutes, or until tomatoes begin to break down. Cover with tortilla squares, sprinkle with cheese, reduce high to low, and cook, covered, for 5 minutes, or until cheese melts.

Makes 6 servings.

L PER SERVING: 194 CAL (29% from fat), 8g PROT, 6g FAT, 29g CARB, 257mg SOD, 15mg CHOL, 4.4g FIBER

Tortilla Soup

To prepare dried peppers, first wipe them clean and then toast them in a dry cast iron skillet over high heat until they soften and plump up slightly. Remove seeds and ribs and proceed as directed in your recipe.

6 corn tortillas, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 dried pasilla peppers, toasted and chopped
4 medium tomatoes, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
5 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon fresh epazote, chopped, (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350° and lightly pan spray a baking sheet. Spread tortilla squares over prepared sheet and toast for 20 minutes, or until no longer pliable.

2. In a blender or food processor, puree peppers, half of the tomatoes, garlic, and 1/2 cup of vegetable stock.

3. In a heavy soup pot, cook onions in a 1/4 cup of vegetable stock over medium high for 5 minutes, or until soft. Add pepper mixture, potatoes, remaining stock, and epazote. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in tortilla pieces and serve with cheese, if desired.

Makes 6 servings.

L PER SERVING: 132 CAL (9% from fat), 3g PROT, 1g FAT, 25g CARB, 258mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 3.3g FIBER

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