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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
TESTING SEEDS FOR VIABILITY
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
WITH SALSA VERDE
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
New York strip steaks
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
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
1-1/2 lb tomatillos
1/2 cup chopped white onion
1/2 cup fresh
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
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.
4 whole chicken legs
3 chopped green onions
cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 cups chicken
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 pounds potato, peeled
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