With a flavor that mixes citrus and mint (and a scent that’s not as appealing), this elusive herb is an essential ingredient in many Latin dishes, such as beans, soups, quesadillas and eggs.
IT’S A DRIZZLY Sunday night in the Georgetown neighborhood. Jared Velazquez Ayala, dressed all in black, hands me the brown paper bag. I stick my nose in. Pungent. Unmistakable. The herb — sometimes called a weed — is surprisingly hard to get in the Northwest.
Chef Velazquez uses epazote to flavor broths, soups and sauces at Fonda La Catrina and El Sirenito on Airport Way South. While it is a key ingredient in Mexican cooking, epazote is little known to home cooks here, and it can be hard to find. But it’s worth seeking out at farmers markets in summer.
Velazquez says that in Mexico, epazote is used for health and healing as well as cooking. In his home state of San Luis Potosi, he used to smell it growing in fields.
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Epazote is an essential ingredient in many Latin dishes, such as beans, soups, quesadillas and eggs. It is traditionally used in black beans for flavor and for its supposed carminative (gas-reducing) properties.
“You can put some salsa verde, fried tortillas, queso fresco and cream together, and it will taste good, but you add epazote, and you go to a higher level,” says Velazquez.
I first cooked with epazote last year, when another acquaintance (also a man in black) slipped me a bunch (also in a brown paper bag). I made James Beard’s recipe for black bean soup with kabocha squash. The flavor was fantastic. My beans will never be the same.
The unique flavor is sort of a combination of citrus and mint. The smell is not so nice; some have likened it to resin, putty or gasoline. Don’t be deterred.
Velazquez says people who try to make esquites at home, the popular antojitos of corn kernels with lime and chili powder, are often stumped as to why the dish isn’t as delicious as what street vendors sell in Mexico. The missing ingredient, he says, is epazote.
Velazquez hands me the green stuff so I can test some recipes at home. It’s not in season at the time of my deadline, but he’s able to get it year-round from his suppliers.
Home cooks can grow it themselves, use dried epazote from a Latin market or buy it fresh in the summer.
Alvarez Organic Farms in Mabton, Wash., plans to sell the herb at Seattle-area farmers markets this summer. Octavio Godinez, market manager, says his dad started growing epazote in the 1990s. “My dad liked to experiment with different things,” he says. “No one really knew what to do with it then, but now customers are starting to ask for it.”
Godinez says it’s a good idea to buy it in summer and dry it yourself to use throughout the year. It’s also easy to grow from seed.
I made these quesadillas at home, with my secret stash from Velazquez. One of my teenagers described the flavor as green; the other said earthy. The snacks were gone in a flash.
Quesadillas de Epazote
Serves 2 as appetizers
4 soft corn tortillas
Jack cheese, grated
Fresh epazote leaves
Serrano peppers, cut in strips, seeds removed
1. Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat.
2. Put the tortillas in the skillet or on the griddle, and sprinkle on the cheese evenly. When the cheese starts to melt, add a couple of epazote leaves and a strip or two of serrano pepper to each tortilla. Fold them into halves. Finish melting the cheese, and remove from heat.
3. Serve with a side of guacamole or rice and beans.
Jared Velazquez Ayala