Before the invention of tinfoil or grilling baskets, pragmatic cooks picked their kitchen supplies from branches and found what they needed in the trees.
The litany of leaves that works for steaming or grilling is a long one: fig and banana leaves, betel leaves in Vietnamese cuisine and shiso leaves in Japanese. There are tamales in their corn husk coverings, and cabbage leaves in Eastern European recipes.
Blanched or grilled, fig leaves give up a spicy register, a subtle undertone of coconut; they're blissfully fragrant wrappers for lamb meatballs. Just roll up the meatballs in the blanched leaves, skewer them and toss the kebabs on the grill.
To serve, unroll the slightly charred leaves and dip the fragrant meatballs into a cool cucumber-mint raita.
Cooking with fig leaves has been a happy practice at Berkeley's Chez Panisse since it opened, says David Tanis, longtime downstairs co-chef (with Jean-Pierre Moullé). "We've been doing it here for 100 years -- well, no, 37," Tanis says. "I'll bet it's something Alice [Waters] picked up in France," he says. The kitchen picks leaves from a Black Mission tree near the restaurant.
"Fig trees always have too many leaves anyway."
Tanis likes to cook fish -- halibut, salmon, "most white-fleshed, boneless fish fillets" -- in fig leaves, which keep the fish moist and perfume it simultaneously. He'll use simple seasoning (salt and pepper, a good olive oil, garlic, maybe fresh thyme) and then just wrap the leaf around the fish.
"If you're grilling, you get the protection [of the leaf], and all that grilly flavor."
The Vietnamese way
BANANA leaves play an important role in Vietnamese cuisine -- they're used as a wrapper for sticky rice dumplings and whole fish -- and the technique is easily adapted to California cooking.
During cooking, banana leaves yield cool faint notes of tea and anise that complement fish. Coat a wedge of halibut with a quick sauce of cilantro and lime, garlic and chiles, then double-wrap the fish in banana leaves and grill. The outer leaves may char a bit, but the inner layer keeps the fish beautifully moist -- and serves as an ad hoc platter.
Andrea Nguyen, author of "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen," says her mother liked to cook with banana leaves so much that they bought their first house, in San Clemente, for its three banana trees.
"My mother used to send my father outside with a machete -- we just used the leaves [from the tree]," Nguyen says.
Grape leaves are another common leaf used for cooking, and perhaps the most familiar. They're essential in Greek and Middle-Eastern cooking and, unlike banana and fig leaves -- which are used only as wrappers -- grape leaves are eaten along with their contents.
Although you can use fresh grape leaves (if you do, pick young leaves that have not been sprayed with pesticides and blanch them), brined grape leaves are readily available.
And they're not just for dolmades, the little meticulously wrapped bundles often filled with lamb and rice and braised in broth.
Cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman includes a wonderful recipe for grilled grape leaves stuffed with feta cheese in her new cookbook, "Mediterranean Harvest." Shulman's recipe is simple yet well articulated, a lovely juxtaposition of flavor and texture.