In the beautiful economy of the forest -- or the urban backyard garden -- leaves are nature’s brilliant cookware. Banana leaves can be cut down to make plates or unfurled into wrappers perfect for steaming fish on a low-slung grill. Fig trees and grapevines yield leaves the exact size for enclosing, then grilling, a cube of feta, a recumbent sardine or a mint-studded lamb meatball.
Before the invention of tinfoil or grilling baskets, pragmatic cooks picked their kitchen supplies from branches and found what they needed in the trees.
Going green was logical -- OK, obvious -- long before it became chic.
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 Moulle). “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.
BRINED grape leaves are first blanched to remove some of the salt and to further tenderize them, then wrapped around cubes of firm feta. The little bundles are threaded on wooden skewers, brushed lightly with olive oil, and briefly grilled.
The grape leaves, crisped and faintly charred, have a spice and crunch that highlight the smooth beauty of melting feta. Throw a bunch of red grapes on the grill too: The bursts of winey flavor are a perfect counterpoint to the little kebabs.
Chez Panisse’s Tanis likes to cook with grape leaves as well as the leaves from that nearby fig tree. On a recent menu he offered sardines grilled in grape leaves, with parsley and lemon salad.
Finding leaves to cook with at your next grilling can be as easy as pulling down a branch in your backyard. The most important thing is to know your tree. Make sure that you’re harvesting leaves from a banana or fig tree, and that it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides.
If you don’t have a fig tree (or your neighbor doesn’t), many fig vendors at farmers markets will be happy to bring you a bundle of leaves if you ask ahead.
Brined grape leaves can be found in the international section of your grocery store or at Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern markets.
Banana leaves are available fresh or frozen at Asian markets and in many grocery stores -- or, if you live in Southern California, possibly in your neighbor’s yard.
Snip off the woody stem of grape or fig leaves; remove the fibrous inner stalk of banana leaves. If you’re picking fresh, choose young leaves, which are more supple, or blanch the leaves briefly in boiling water.
You don’t have to blanch the leaves, but it makes them easier to work with -- and brings out their aromas. Then just match the flavors and characteristics of the leaves with what you’re wrapping inside.
With any extra leaves (on your kitchen counter, on the trees outside), try throwing together a quick extra course. Wrap half a peach drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon in a fig leaf, or fold a handful of market vegetables -- with a splash of olive oil and a brief rain of sea salt -- inside a banana leaf.
A few minutes on the grill and they’re done.
Practical and biodegradable, those leaves outside your window may be the best kitchen tool you’ll ever find.
After dinner, compost the remnants of the feast. Then watch the overhead green canopy -- your kitchen’s perfect renewable resource -- rustle and blow.