Chefs around the country are increasingly turning to this herb from southern Mexico
Consumers seeking adventure in what they eat often say that authenticity is a key to their decision-making process. A single ingredient can make the difference when it comes to giving a dish credibility, and when it comes to Mexican food, chefs in the U.S. are increasingly turning to epazote.
Pronounced ay-pa-ZO-tay, this herb, with aromas ranging from mint to gasoline, is a mainstay in the cuisines of central and southern Mexico, especially in beans because it is said to have anti-flatulence properties.
“Coincidentally it happens to flavor beans really well,” said Manuel Treviño,at the Dream Downtown hotel in New York City, and a former contestant on season 4 of Bravo TV’s Top Chef. “It’s also great on its own.”
A look at dishes that feature epazote
Epazote goes well with corn, too, as Treviño demonstrates with his sweet corn esquitas, a preparation of corn kernels sautéed in butter and then flavored with onions, crema fresca, cotija cheese and fresh epazote.
“The epazote gives it this really cool, herbaceous flavor,” he said. “It’s kind of anise-like, it’s kind of basil-like, and kind of mint-like at the same time.”
Sylvia Casares, chef-owner of the two-unit Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston, said epazote’s flavor gives food a distinctly Mexican feel. “If you taste epazote, you know it’s a Mexican dish as opposed to Cuban or anything else,” said Casares, who uses the herb to flavor her black beans.
A native of the border city of Brownsville, Texas, Casares specializes in the Tex-Mex food indigenous to that region, which doesn’t use epazote. People in the northern part of Mexico, who don't have epazote, traditionally use cumin instead, according to chef, consultant and Mexican food expert Roberto Santibañez.
“It’s more of an interior [Mexico] ingredient, but it gives black beans such a wonderful flavor that I just had to add it,” Casares explained, noting that black beans aren’t part of the cuisine of U.S.-Mexico border area, where pinto beans are the norm. “But there was a demand for black beans, and they’ve become my personal favorite.”
Casares serves black beans as a side dish as well as in an enchilada. She cooks the beans for about an hour with sautéed onion, garlic, and some tomato and arbol chile. Then she adds epazote still on the stem, cooks the beans for another 30 minutes and then removes the herb.
Cathy Shyne, the chef at Tortilla Republic, which opened its first location in Poipu on the Hawaiian island of Kauai last year and opened a second location in West Hollywood, Calif., five months ago, studied Mexican cuisine under Santibañez before opening her first location. She learned to use epazote’s milder, younger leaves in her pipián, a seed-based sauce that she serves with shrimp. “[Epazote] gives a totally unique flavor,” she said. “It’s pungent, and kind of like cilantro but not quite — kind of lemony, kind of minty. I really like it.”
Epazote is being used in other sauces across the country, too, such as the salsa verde served with the roasted potato rajas relleno at Border Grill in Los Angeles.
And at Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican chain based in New York, executive chef Joe Quintana chops it up with goat cheese for a steak taco, which also has bone marrow, crispy shallots and pickled tomatillos, and he makes an epazote purée to go with tuna tacos.
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Although epazote is a hallmark of authenticity for Mexican food, it’s now being used in ways that are different from its traditional role as a flavoring for beans, corn, mushrooms and meat, and in restaurants with no relationship to Latin cuisines.
At Escorpion, a tequila bar and Mexican cantina in Atlanta, a cocktail named after the herb is made with a distilled Mexican spirit called sotol and orange syrup, lime juice, epazote and a strawberry. Chef-owner Riccardo Ullio muddles the syrup, strawberry and epazote, adds the sotol and lime, shakes the mixture with ice and strains it into a chilled sour glass, which he garnishes with strawberry. Ullio said the citrus-like fragrance of the herb was a natural fit for the cocktail.
At Elements, an avant-garde restaurant in Princeton, N.J., chef de cuisine Mike Ryan makes an epazote ice cream. “Epazote’s a neat plant,” said Ryan, who spent several months in Mexico studying food before helping to open Elements, where epazote now grows in the restaurant’s garden.
“It’s got the mint tang on the palate and it definitely has a grassiness to it. I guess grassy mint is the best way to describe it,” he said.
Ryan purees “lots and lots of epazote” with an ice cream base augmented with gellan gum and freezes that into ice cream. “It looks like store-brand mint ice cream,” he said, adding that it has a depth of flavor not usually associated with ice cream.
He serves the ice cream as part of a sort of open-faced ice cream sandwich, with toasted bread and a mole made of local Saskatoon berries cooked and pureed with nuts, sesame seeds, chile, dried herbs and some chocolate.
Ryan also purées the herb with some vegetable stock and salt and uses that “almost as a dressing” for a salad made from whatever greens are growing in the garden.
Ben Pollinger, executive chef of Oceana in New York, also grows epazote in his garden in Long Island. He uses the herb to make a pesto with toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted green chile, cilantro, lime and olive oil.
“It’s very pungent, and very herbal — almost being grassy," he said of the epazote pesto. "It also has a light menthol-like quality in that when you eat it, it almost has a cooling effect in your mouth. All that being said, it is delicious.”
He recently served the pesto with masa-dusted wild Alaska king salmon with pan-roasted corn and nopal cactus.
“I started growing the epazote just for fun,” Pollinger said. “Once I had it I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I would bring it in for my Mexican staff members to take home. After a while, I figured out the dish.”