Posts Tagged ‘epazote’

The Winter Kitchen: Pipian Verde


My recent Mexican cooking binge began with darker richer flavors but a spell of warmer weather got me thinking about pipian verde, which is complex but fresher and more spring-like in flavor. I became determined to develop a paste for it so that I could have it on short notice.  Pipian verde is a highly variable sauce based on herbs and thickened with ground seeds, often pumpkin seeds. It’s simpler than the more complicated mole verde but can be surprisingly similar to it. When I first ate it in Oaxaca more than a decade ago it had a flavor that I have not come across before, and which I later identified as hoja santa. This is a fascinating large perennial which grows well in warmer parts of our country, and in fact I noticed it growing wild near San Antonio, but my mountain area is too cold for it. The dried leaves are readily available but are a pale shadow of the taste of the fresh leaves, which resembles authentic sarsaparilla. Ebay came to the rescue, and I found a seller who sent me eight of the large leaves impeccably wrapped up in damp paper towels so that they arrived in perfect condition. There are as many pipian verde recipes as there are cooks in Mexico, so I can’t say that yours has to contain the special leaf, just that mine does. I also think that fresh epazote is necessary, and it’s available at my local Mexican grocery. Again, don’t use dried.
This makes a lot of seasoning paste. It’s concentrated and will be diluted in the final dish. It freezes well. You’ll need a blender.

My ingredients (study some recipes online and your ingredients may vary):

5 fresh poblano peppers

2 fresh jalapeño chiles, only if your poblanos are mild or you love fire

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds

9 medium-sized tomatillos

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

stems (just cut the washed bunch in half vertically) of one bunch cilantro, chopped

1 cup steamed spinach or other mild greens (I used foraged lambsquarters)

1 fresh hoja santa  leaf about 8” long

1 bunch fresh epazote, about 1/2 cup chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup home-rendered lard or avocado oil

Roast the poblanos (and jalapeños if using) under the broiler, turning frequently, until blistered all over.

Use tongs to transfer into a plastic bag, wrap in towels, let “sweat” for about 20 minutes, then peel off the skins, remove and discard stems, veins, and seeds, and set the peeled flesh aside.

The tomatillos can be roasted under the broiler until cooked through (requires close attention) or cooked in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, turning frequently, until they have a few dark spots. Then add enough water to prevent burning and cook until soft. Set aside.

Toast the raw pumpkin seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring continuously, until they swell and darken a bit but don’t let them brown, which ruins the flavor. As soon as they’re ready, pour them out of the hot skillet into a bowl to cool.

Chop up the various fresh leaves and stems into small pieces, crumble the oregano a bit, chop the steamed spinach or similar if not already chopped.

Put the cooled pumpkin seeds in the blender and blend to the fine-crumbs stage but don’t let them turn to butter. Add all other ingredients except the lard or oil and blend, adding a little water if needed to keep the blades turning. I like to keep some texture in mine.

Now, the final step that makes everything meld. Heat a large saucepan or a wok with the lard (more authentic) or oil (more readily obtainable) over high heat and pour in the seasoning paste to “sear.” Careful, it spatters furiously. Cook over high heat, stirring and scraping constantly, for a few minutes until the entire potful is boiling hard. Turn off the heat and (cautiously) taste and add salt to taste. Let cool, and package in suitably sized containers for refrigeration or freezing.

Now it can be used to sauce pork, chicken, or fish, diluting to the right consistency with good broth appropriate to the meat or seafood and adjusting the salt as needed. Roasted salted pumpkin seeds and/or some fresh cilantro leaves make a good garnish.  It’s great in a soft taco or sope  with a slice of fresh panela cheese and a crumbling of the far more intense cotija cheese on top.  My favorite use for it is shown at the top of this post: pan-grill some very good shrimp with salt and garlic, add a cup of pipian paste and 1/2 cup of shrimp broth per pound of shrimp and cook briefly until the sauce comes together, adjust seasoning as needed but keep the sauce very thick, and serve with an endless supply of good hot fresh tortillas.


For lunch in 10 minutes, use pipian verde paste diluted half and half with broth, bring to a boil to thicken, and adjust seasoning. Heat tortillas. Scramble two or three eggs with a little salt to taste until fairly firm. Cover a plate with the sauce, heap the eggs in the middle, sprinkle with chopped cilantro and a handful of roasted salted pumpkin seeds (darker squash seeds here,) and add a red dash of salsa macha. Eat with soft tortillas. Yum.

About those tortillas: in general I stick to a low carbohydrate diet, but when in a Mexican phase I don’t. Simple as that. Without rice, beans, and the endlessly creative uses of masa, it isn’t real Mexican food as far as I’m concerned. So I watch my portion sizes, eat one main meal a day and some light snacks, and try not to stay in a Mexican phase for too long. But it’s worth it.

Vegetable Dinners: Black Bean Cakes, and notes on cornmeal


The famous nutritionist Marion Nestle once claimed that she could tell anyone in a sentence how to improve their health and nutritional status: “Eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables.” Around my house we love to fill our plates with vegetables, so no problem there, but lately I’ve been experimenting with ways to add more dried beans to our diet. This coincides with my aquisition of a solar oven, but in this recipe the beans don’t even have to be cooked. You can soak them for 24 hours, or you can use drained cooked black beans if you have some handy. These patties make a substantial main course and are a good main dish for occasions when you have vegetarians and/or vegans over for dinner.

Black Bean Cakes

Start with one cup dried black beans. Soak in a quart of soft or filtered water at room temperature for 24 hours. If you can’t give them the full soaking time, use 2 cups of cooked drained black beans instead.
About a cup of fine cornmeal (I like finely ground blue cornmeal, which helps keep the color dark)
1 small bunch each of epazote and cilantro, or 1 large bunch cilantro
1 teaspoon lightly roasted ground cumin
2 medium or three small shallots, very finely chopped
2 limes, one juiced, one cut in wedges or slices
salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chiles
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
about half a cup of olive oil

Drain the soaked beans very thoroughly. They should now be about 2 cups in volume. If using cooked beans, drain very thoroughly. Whichever kind of beans you are using, let them sit in the strainer for at least half an hour, because you want them as dry as you can get them. Now grind them finely in a food processor. MIx in a small handful of chopped epazote or, if you couldn’t find epazote, a large handful of chopped cilantro. Mix in the chopped shallots, cumin, chipotle, the juice of one lime, and about half a teaspoon of salt, and taste for salt. Add more if needed to make the mixture taste properly seasoned. Make it a little tiny bit on the salty side, because you are still going to add more dry ingredients. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When almost ready to cook, process in half a cup of cornmeal mixed with the baking powder. Check the consistency; if it’s possible to mold it into cakes, you’re ready to go. Otherwise, add more cornmeal until it can be molded (with difficulty) but is still very soft. Sprinkle cornmeal on a piece of waxed paper and scoop out heaping tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the paper. When the oil is good and hot, carefully lay the cakes in the hot oil, patting a little with fingers or a spatula to make them no more than 1/2 inch in diameter. Be careful, they’re fragile, but you don’t want to add more cornmeal unless strictly necessary because they can get dry and tough if you add too much. You can also skip the waxed-paper step and spoon the mixture directly into the hot skillet, spreading it out with the back of a damp spoon to make the cakes about 3/8″ thick. Let them sizzle at least 3-4 minutes, then when you’re sure that a good brown crust has formed on the bottom side to hold them together, carefully turn with a narrow spatula and cook on the other side until done. You can keep them warm in a 200 degree oven while you fry the second batch. The main “secrets” are to keep the dough on the moist and fragile side, get the oil hot enough, don’t omit the baking powder because it does improve the texture, and wield your spatula with caution to turn them without breaking the cakes around them. .

Once cooked, you can decide how to serve them. They are fine naked on a warmed platter, garnished with a large handful of cilantro leaves and wedges of lime as shown above. A squeeze of the fresh lime juice is important to the flavor, in my opinion, and I pick up a few cilantro leaves to add to each bite. My favorite garnish (vegetarian but not vegan) is some very good olive oil mayonnaise with a little extra lime juice and a lot of chopped cilantro stirred in. They can also be served with warmed small corn tortillas and guacamole, and a little heap of crumbled cotija cheese on top is a delicious tangy addition; the vegans at the table can just omit it.

The beans and blue cornmeal are both full of antioxidants, blue cornmeal is a whole-grain product, and beans have beneficial phytosterols as well as lots of fiber and other desirable nutritional factors. But I only eat things that taste good, and these cakes taste good.

Notes on cornmeal: a lot of cornmeal on the market is very uneven in grind, and any meal containing large particles will leave unpleasant hard fragments in your finished cakes. I buy a blue cornmeal made locally and ground to flour fineness. If you buy yours at the store, I suggest sifting it to get the largest chunks out, or whir it in the blender for a few minutes to grind it more finely. I would avoid the Bob’s Red Mill “medium grind” cornmeal: it seems to be a mix of the company’s fine grind and polenta grind, and can leave tooth-cracking particles in your bean cakes or cornbread. Seek out a better product.