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.


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.

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