Epazote and Esquites

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On its home turf, the herb is called eptitzotl, meaning skunk’s sweat. European botanists received it in the seventeenth century and named it Chenopodium ambrosioides, meaning the leaf shaped like a goose’s foot that is fit for the gods. Both descriptions are accurate. Epazote has also been called, with varying degrees of accuracy, wormseed, Mexican tea, Jerusalem parsley, sweet pigweed, and hedge mustard.

This herb is to Mexican cuisine what tarragon is to French – astonishing, almost overpowering, and indispensable. Heaven only knows what possessed the first person to have eaten the stuff because, in its raw state, it smells like petroleum or creosote or … possibly … skunk’s sweat.
Once epazote is cooked, however, its aroma and flavor are both inviting and indescribable.  It is an essential ingredient when cooking black beans and it makes an inspired (or, shall we say, “secret”) ingredient in soups, tamales, eggs, and grilled or braised fish, shellfish, and meats. When your guests (even those who are not gods) first taste something you’ve made with epazote, they will ask you for the recipe. It won’t do, at that point, to talk about skunks or geese. On the other hand, you might be able to convince them slyly that, say, doña Meche of Pátzcuaro shared with you her great-grandmother’s recipe simply because you had been de buena onda with her.

The biggest hurdle these days is in finding the epazote. No, it’s not rare. In fact, it’s considered a weed – it can be found growing in the sidewalks of residential Philadelphia and along the verges of county roads in California. No, the problem is that most supermarkets south of the border consider epazote too déclassé to carry in their vegetable section and that, north of the border, the local Mexican populations harvest it in the wild almost to the point of extinction. In northern Baja, you can usually find fresh epazote among the offerings in the local tianguis or sobreruedas (the open-air markets) and at Mercado Hidalgo. Typically, though, it’s grown at home as a pot-herb.

Epazote can be grown from live plants, which are sold in the sobreruedas and Mercado Hidalgo, as well as from seeds and seedlings that are sold by herb nurseries in real life and online. Pretty much any Mexican cook can teach you how to identify the plant in the wild. Once you’ve seen it and smelled it you will easily be able to distinguish it from its closest relative, the culinarily useless pigweed.

You can also find dried epazote among the packaged herbs in markets and supermarkets. Understand, however, that the difference between fresh and dried is a lot like the difference between real mashed potatoes from scratch and instant mashed potatoes from a box. Still, it’s worthwhile to keep some dried epazote on hand for use in a pinch … and no more than a pinch. The dried version is ever so much more overpowering than the fresh version. This really is the Mexican answer to tarragon.

So now we come to esquites. The word refers to two different things: roast corn on the cob, which is called izquitl in Nahuatl, and corn kernels cooked in herbs, which is called itzquitl. Epazote figures into both because epazote will always turn corn into something astonishing. Just imagine what it might do for polenta or johnnycakes.

Izquitl esquites

In Baja California, you will find that this version of esquites is being sold by street vendors under the name of elotes asados. To keep their costs down, the street vendors invariably cut corners by substituting margarine or imitation mayonnaise and omitting the epazote. Boiling, which is also cheaper, is now more common than grilling, in which case the sign will read elotes cocidos. Not to disparage the street food but, yes, you can do a better job yourself.

Clean whole ears of corn by removing their silks and outer husks, but leave some inner husks attached to the cob.  Rub the kernels with a compound butter of epazote, close up the inner husks, and grill the ears over live coals until the grains are not quite parched.

The compound butter.  Wash and dry the epazote leaves then mince them finely. Use one teaspoon of minced epazote leaves for every tablespoon of softened butter, more or less. Season to taste with salt, pepper, chile sauce, and lemon or lime juice. Mix well and refrigerate.

This same compound butter can be used when grilling or sautéing fish or meats. Make sure to apply it during the cooking process rather than as a garnish at table in order for its raw flavor to be transformed by the heat.

Itzquitl esquites

3 cups frozen kernels of corn
4 tablespoons of butter
1 sprig (about 6 large leaves) of epazote, minced
juice of 2 Mexican limes
ground white pepper
ground chile piquín

Over a low flame, cook the corn in the butter, epazote, and lime juice until almost done, about five minutes. Add some water if too dry. Stir in salt. pepper, and chile pequín to taste and finish cooking. Serve warm.
On the street, this type is made from boiled corn and it is sold as elote desgranado (corn in loose kernels) or elote de vaso (corn in a cup) because it’s served in a plastic drinking cup.

The recipes here will give you results superior to what you will find on the street. This is not meant, however, to discredit the street food. Without putting too fine a point on the matter, you won’t find Diana Kennedy slaving over a brazier in Parque Teniente Guerrero but the esquites you do find there will make your stroll around the park ever so much more enjoyable.