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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cooking (with) leaves

Rice cakes and herb salad, Moneycat Brunch, Houston, TX

As spring rolls into Houston, leaves are sprouting out all over, and if you grow leafy vegetables, now is a good time to harvest time (unless, of course, you are an avowed carnivore). In the average supermarket, most of the focus on leaves are in the typical salad greens. Here in the Southern US, collard greens are also somewhat popular, usually cooked to a green mush with salt pork. More sparingly used are the fresh herbs, which are by and large in the form of leaves.

Mint and oregano

There are leaves which are to be avoided, however, such as the green part of the rhubarb. But this may be undeserved in the case of tomato leaves. Harold McGee investigated this: as the tomato and the potato are related to the deadly nightshade, parts of the plant are thought to contain the toxic alkaloid tomatine. Indeed, almost no cuisine uses the tomato leaves, despite their strong aroma. Despite the reputation, one would have to consume almost a pound of tomato leaves to have enough tomatine to be toxic to the average human adult; McGee added leaves to a number of dishes to bring up that "fresh picked" punch with no ill effects.
Bibingka, cake cooked in charred banana leaves.

One need not consume leaves directly, though. Cooking in avocado leaves brings an irreplaceable flavor to Oaxacan dishes. Bay leaves should be carefully fished out of stews, lest they be accidentally swallowed to potentially lodge into the gut lining inviting infections. And wrapping things in banana leaves is a time tested method of bringing flavor to the contents. Tamales, suman, zongzi can all be wrapped in banana leaves before steaming to infuse in a floral and herbal aroma. And few things can replicate the scent of charring the banana leaves: in the dish bibingka, cake batter is poured into boats of banana leaves, before being cooked between two braziers of hot coals. Beyond simply protecting the food, the burning leaf is essential to the bibingka flavor, something notably missing when the cake is simply baked in an oven. 

"Kare-Kare" as interpreted by Steve Marques, Tasting Room Uptown, Houston, TX
Then again, banana leaves aren't the only leaves used to infuse flavor into food by wrapping around it. Lotus leaves, bamboo leaves, oak leaves, fig leaves, grape leaves, taro leaves have all served this purpose and more in cuisines around the world.

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