A Field Guide to Cooking with Leaves
Culinary foliage unfurled
Lettuces are lovely and herbs are essential, but they’re hardly the only foliage deployed in cooking. For centuries, European cheesemakers have aged their wares in deciduous tree leaves, and the oak’s naturally tannic greenery has acted as an antifungal agent for generations of pickled vegetables. Before the advent of the paper and plastic industries, leaves were an ideal material for food wrappings, either as edible enclosures or as fragrant, inexpensive packaging. Many of these practices persist, if not out of necessity, then out of cultural preference and tradition. A Look around. Leaves shiver with possibility all summer long, just waiting to be plucked. Snap a fig leaf from the branch for savory simple syrup; soak chestnut leaves in brandy to wrap around fresh pats of goat cheese; pickle perilla for a salty, herbal Korean snack; or dry vibrant sassafras for a winter’s worth of gumbo filé.
Tropical Asia and Queensland, Australia Similar to water lilies, lotuses have wide, flat leaves that emerge just above the surface of shallow bodies of freshwater. The plant’s edible seeds and rhizomes are widely used in Asian cuisines, and in southern China, the durable, waxy leaves are often dried and used as a wrapping for lo mai gai, a dim sum dish of steamed sticky rice, meat, mushrooms, vegetables, salted egg, and aromatics.
Cool temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa A symbol of fortitude and
prosperity, the oak tree has a high level of tannic acid, which means it can thrive in the midst of insect or fungal attack. This natural and nontoxic preservative lends itself to pickling; a few astringent oak leaves in a jar of fermented Russian pickles is a traditional way to keep summer cucumbers crisp.
PERILLA OR SHISO
Native to Japan, Korea, and India, and cultivated in the United States and Canada This teardrop-shaped leaf is called shiso in Japan, and perilla or deulkkae in Korea. Smaller and softer, Japanese shiso can occur in green or purple varieties, the latter of which are used for coloring umeboshi (Japanese salt plums). Green shiso is often enjoyed fresh as an herb or garnish. Korean perilla is more substantial, with a spicy flavor similar to cinnamon and anise. When marinated and fermented, deulkkae are called kkaennip jangajji and are a popular Korean banchan (snack served with rice).
Eastern North America Sassafras roots traditionally flavored root beer, but the leaves are a necessary ingredient in Louisiana gumbo. Dried and ground to a powder called filé, the earthy, mild green (similar to oregano or marjoram) acts as a traditional thickening agent, and lends body and substance to soups and stews without additional starch.
Native to the Andes; now naturalized in temperate areas of North America These delicate, floppy, vibrantgreen leaves (whose colorful flowers are also edible) have a peppery bite. Add a handful to salads for a refreshing crunch akin to watercress, or use the large lily pad–like foliage for a quick-cooking variation on dolmas.
Native to the Middle East and western Asia; cultivated globally Rife with religious and artistic metaphors, the leaves of the fig are mostly overlooked for the tree’s sweet fruit. But they’re good for more than concealing biblical people’s unmentionables. Try steeping them in hot water for a soothing, nutty alternative to green tea or in simple syrup for a grassy and refreshing cocktail mixer. Fig greens also make a sophisticated surface for serving runny cheeses.
Northern South America, Central America, southeast Florida Appearing in Mexican dishes such as Oaxacan mole verde and the soothing hominy soup, pozole, hoja santa is a wide aromatic leaf comparable in flavor to licorice, sassafras, and tarragon. Paula Lambert of Dallas’s Mozzarella Co. wraps them around wheels of her fresh goat cheese, which imparts a grassy, aniselike flavor.