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By Ann McCormick
www.ann-mccormick.com

Many of the foods Texans love and claim as their own come from our Mexican neighbors. Burritos, tacos, enchiladas and nachos have even slipped past our state borders and become part of American food. Alas, several of the distinctive herbs that make Mexican cooking so flavorful have been lost in the translation. For authentic quesadillas, pico de gallo, tamales and other foods from the south you need the herbs from the south. Here are six distinctive flavors you can grow in your own back yard.

Cumin
The herb that I most enjoy in Mexican cooking is cumin (KUM-in). It adds an assertive flavor note to Mexican sauces, soups and stews. I often add a teaspoon of it to commercial seasoning mixes.

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is an annual herb somewhat resembling a short version of dill. It grows to only about 6 inches high and produces pink to white flowers that develop into the cumin seeds, which are technically fruits. The USDA lists it as naturalized in parts of Texas, which tells you it grows well here.

Texas gardeners should sow cumin outdoors in spring once the temperatures exceed 55 degrees. If you've had difficulty growing this herb before don't feel bad. Cumin seeds have a short shelf life so getting viable seed is a concern. To avoid disappointment, cumin seed should be tested before sowing (see sidebar). You can also soak the seeds for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water occasionally to remove its natural germination inhibiting chemicals.

Sow cumin in a pot or a corner of the vegetable garden where it will have light, loose soil. One source says its "rather lax growth habit makes it a droopy-looking plant." Keep it weed free to ensure healthy growth.

Mexican Oregano
If you have room for just one native herb, then Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora) is your best choice. The leaves of this shrubby herb are a somewhat spicy replacement for garden oregano. When substituting, reduce the amount in your recipe to about two-thirds of garden oregano.

Mexican oregano likes full sun but will also grow in partial shade. This graceful perennial provides lovely color through summer and into fall with tubular white, pink and lavender flowers. It generally reaches 3 feet. In my shade garden, however, it is prostrate, growing no higher than about 10 inches. Although native to the drier regions of Texas, it can adapt to the humid gulf area. It can also be grown in containers, where it will delight you with a cascade of showy flowers.

Hoja Santa
Tortillas aren't the only thing Mexican cooks use to wrap food. Hoja santa leaves grow as large as a man's hand and work almost as well. The leaves have a slightly licorice/fennel flavor and can be used diced in soups, salads, and salsa verde. A favorite dish in Veracruz is Pescado en Hoja Santa, fish wrapped in the leaves, baked and served with a spicy tomato sauce. One gourmet cheese maker uses the leaves to wrap fresh mozzarella and impart a subtle flavor. The stems have a flavor resembling sarsaparilla, which has been used in beverages. This gives the plant its alternate English name of root beer plant.

Hoja santa (Piper auritum) is a tropical relative of black pepper. It grows in loose clusters and propagates by sending out runners. Individual stalks rise 3 to 6 feet with large heart shaped leaves 6 inches or more in diameter. The plants grow in clusters that tend to be wider than they are tall.

Hoja santa is a tender perennial that will quickly wither and die back to the ground at the first frost. It also droops in high heat if not given adequate water. Despite this garden drama, the plant is persistent, propagating by underground runners.

Cilantro
Cilantro is the Spanish name for coriander. This annual herb produces pungent green leaves that provide the signature flavor in many Southwestern dishes. Who could make pico de gallo or quesadillas without it? From the same plant comes spicy brown seeds, which are ground and used in seasoning blends.

This annual herb grows easily from seed and produces abundant leaves in the spring. But once the daytime temperatures rise above the 80s, cilantro will bolt - switch from leaf production to seed production. When this happens, the leaves are not as flavorful. You can delay bolting by clipping the central flower stalk once it appears, but eventually rising temperatures will spur the plant to set seed and die. To have a second crop, sow cilantro seeds after Labor Day. The dropping temperatures will allow the new plants to produce leaves until the first frost.

Epazote
No discussion of the herb flavors of Mexico would be complete without epazote (e-pa-ZO-te). Fresh epazote has dark green serrated leaves. You'll probably need to visit an Hispanic food store to find it fresh. The dried leaves have less punch but are a reasonable substitute. Epazote is often used with dried beans, corn or fish. It is reputed to be effective in reducing intestinal gas.

Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides) behaves like a tender perennial in most of Texas. It will survive to the coming year if winter temperatures are mild. Because of its invasive habit - springing up at the drop of a seed - don't add epazote to your herb garden. Plant it separately instead, somewhere it will have lots of sun and open space.

Papaloquelite
The leaves of papaloquelite are used in traditional Mexican cooking in the same manner as cilantro. Papaloquelite is something of an acquired taste. One author describes it as "sort of like gazpacho in a leaf, sans tomatoes." But not everyone has this high opinion of its flavor.

There are several annual plants that go under the name of papaloquelite. All are members of the Porophyllum group and have a similar distinctive aroma. Common names for these plants include quiniquilla, herba galinazo (buzzard's breath), pipicha, bighead poreleaf and papalo.

Papaloquelite grows easily from seed. Sow it in a location with good drainage and full sun after danger of frost has passed. Because it can reach 6 feet, plant this herb in the back of the garden. It produces purple to bronze starburst flowers late in the growing season.

Lipia
If you would like to create Mexican beverages or desserts you need lipia, commonly known north of the border as lemon verbena. The leaves can be used instead of lemon zest in just about any recipe. In baked goods, add about 10 leaves with every cup of sugar and chop in the blender or food processor. Use the sugar as you normally would in the recipe. In recipes for foods such as cheesecake or a sauce topping, finely mince the leaves and add them in place of the lemon zest.

I was surprised to find that lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), one of my personal favorites, is actually not a native herb but traveled here from Peru. Lemon verbena is a rather gawky looking herb that is best kept toward the back of your garden. It is a tender perennial, requiring some protection during winter if grown above Zone 7. It will drop its leaves with the first hard freeze and look pitiful until late spring. Then, just when you think it's dead, it will surprise you and put out green leaves.

Other Mexican Herbs
This is just a sampling of the herbs used throughout Mexico. Avocado leaves are used in stews just as we use bay leaves. The green or purple flat pods of guajes provide a garlic flavor. Annatto seed is used to flavor meats and add color to rice dishes. Pipicha is a stronger flavor version of cilantro and is used in green salsa and corn dishes.

So next time you pull out the skillet to make fajitas or reach for tortillas to make enchiladas consider using some of these authentic flavors of Mexico. Your family and your taste buds will thank you.

 

TESTING SEEDS FOR VIABILITY

It's a simple matter to test seeds for viability - the ability to come to life and grow. First read the back of the seed pack and find the "days to germination." Take 10 seeds from the packet. Wrap them in a damp paper towel. Place the towel in a plastic bag and seal it so it won't dry out. Set the bag in a quiet place and wait the number of days to germination before unwrapping the towel. Count how many seeds show signs of growth. For every one that germinated, 10 percent of your seeds will be viable. If only four or less grew, it's probably best to throw them out. But if at least half grew, it's worth the effort to sow them.

This method works for most, but not all, seeds. Some require special conditions, such as cold temperatures, soaking, or seed scarification (scratching or breaking the outer shell), to germinate. Check the package for any special germination instructions.
 



RECIPES
GRILLED STEAK
WITH SALSA VERDE

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander
   (cilantro) seeds
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black
    pepper
4 New York strip steaks
olive oil

Over medium-low heat, toast the cumin and coriander seeds for five minutes, stirring often. Transfer seeds to a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Grind evenly and add other seasoning.

Rinse the strip steaks and pat dry. Lightly coat with olive oil. Sprinkle the seasoning mix on both sides of steak and rub in evenly. Transfer to a baking sheet and cover, allowing them to rest for at least 30 minutes before grilling to desired doneness. Serve with salsa verde.

SALSA VERDE

1-1/2 lb tomatillos
    (to-mah-TEE-ohs)
1/2 cup chopped white onion
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar
4 ounce can jalapenos
Salt to taste

Remove the papery husk from the tomatillos and rinse well. Cut them in half and place face down on a broiler pan. Place under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes or until the skin begins to blacken.

Remove from the broiler and allow to cool. Peel off the charred skin and place in a blender or food processor. Add all other ingredients and process until all ingredients are finely chopped. Don't overprocess or you will get a less appetizing smooth paste. Chill and serve.

CHICKEN-POTATO STEW

4 whole chicken legs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground pepper
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 pounds potato, peeled
    and diced
1 cup corn kernels
1/2 cup "half and half" milk

Chop and combine the green onions and cilantro. Peel and dice the carrots and potatoes. Skin the chicken and separate the thighs from the drumsticks. In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil and brown the chicken pieces. Remove and drain them on paper towels.

Add the onions and cilantro to the pot. Cook for about one minute, stirring constantly. Pour in the chicken broth. Add the carrots, potatoes, corn and ground pepper and bring to a boil. Return the drained chicken pieces to the pot, pushing them down under the vegetables. Cover and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken begins to separate from the bone.

Stir in the "half and half" milk. Add salt to taste. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves, if desired.

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