In Mexico and Central America, a pot of traditionally cooked beans has a particular aroma and flavor, often missing from Tex-Mex renditions of this dish. This distinct aroma and flavor comes from epazote, a culinary and medicinal herb originating in the region with a story as interesting as its scent.
A member of the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family (along with spinach, chard, beets, amaranth, quinoa and lamb’s quarter), epazote smells like lemon, mint, pepper, turpentine, or nothing else, depending on whom you ask. Its name comes from the Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Mexica or Aztec people) word epazotl, meaning “skunk sweat.” Along with this herb’s powerful scent, it has strong medicinal properties. In Mexico and Central America, a small amount of the herb is added to beans, sauces and many other recipes, and it is known to ease digestion and reduce gas.
Epazote also has been used in Mexico and Central America to treat parasitic worms and intestinal problems dating back to pre-Colombian times. The herb contains a chemical compound toxic to parasitic worms and also to humans, if taken in excessive doses — but it is perfectly safe to cook with a few leaves. Epazote makes a valuable companion plant because its strong aroma can mask the scent of neighboring plants and afford them protection from insect pests.
Epazote grows well in Central Texas. Plant epazote after the last frost, mid- to late-March in Central Texas. Epazote does best in full sun and in well-drained soil. The seeds are tiny; to plant them, scatter a few, and press them gently into the soil. Keep seeds moist until they germinate in seven to 14 days. When seedlings emerge, thin them to 6 inches apart.
Epazote does not need large amounts of water; take care not to overwater it. Each plant will grow 3 feet to 4 feet tall. Leaves can be harvested as soon as plants are established. The tender young ones have the mildest flavor. Epazote readily reseeds itself; if you do not want it to spread in your garden, snip off the spiky, amaranthlike seed heads before the seeds mature.
Epazote is best used fresh but can be dried for later use. To store fresh epazote, snip off a sprig and place it in a glass of water, or, alternately, store leaves between moist paper towels in the refrigerator. To dry the herb, spread leaves out on a paper towel or screen. Store dry leaves in a dark, dry place. It is easy to save epazote seeds. To do so, spread mature seed heads on a screen to dry, and then store them in jars. There is no need to separate out the tiny seeds, as you can do so when you plant them. Handling epazote stems can cause skin irritation in some people. It is a good idea to wash your hands after handling the plant.
Intrigued? We invite you to learn more about growing and cooking epazote and other herbs at Sustainable Food Center’s Intro to Food Gardening class series and Savor the Flavor: Cooking with Herbs class, both this month.
Try your hand at cooking up an aromatic pot of authentic Mexican beans using this recipe from SFC’s the Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre.
Beans/Frijoles de Olla
1 lb. dried pinto or black beans
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp. oil
1 sprig epazote
1 tsp. salt
Remove any stones or debris from the beans. Rinse them in a colander under running water.
Add 2 quarts of water to a medium pot (see note), and then add beans, oil, garlic and epazote. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Beans are cooked when you can easily smash a bean between two fingers and it is not dry or hard in the middle. If beans are done, add salt and simmer for 5 more minutes.
Note: While soaking beans is not necessary, it is sometimes recommended. Thin-skinned beans like black or pinto beans do not require presoaking.