Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
In Many Cultures Around the World, Leaves are a Primary Part of Many Meals.
We typically ignore leaves when harvesting anything with the exception of the obvious lettuce, cabbages, and kales. But in many cultures, a variety of leaves are not only part of many recipes but are used to hold ingredients together for delicacies from rice stuffed dolmades to steamed fish. Some of us are already familiar with stuffed cabbage leaves, but everything from corn husks to wild grape leaves can be used the same way.
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Why Cook In Leaves?
As a primitive form of cooking, this allowed various foods from meats to fish and vegetables to be cooked over open coals without drying out or burning the food. Many cultures across Asia, Africa, and Europe added rice and vegetables combined with meat in leaf-wrapped arrangements.
Banana leaves were often the leaf of choice, but even if you don’t live in the tropics, there are plenty of leafy options. The result is a steamed and well-cooked dish or side-dish that can be eaten from the leaf as a plate enclosing the food or eaten whole with the fingers if the leaf itself is tender, like grape leaves or beet leaves.
Cooking food wrapped in leaves is also a great survival tactic if you don’t have the usual collection of pots, pans, and a grill. Food wrapped in leaves cooks perfectly over or on the coals.
Another good technique is to roll a large log out of the fire with the burning coals of the log facing up and simply lay the leaf package on the coals of the log. When it’s time to cook the other side, just flip it onto a fresh set of coals on the log or roll another log out of the fire.
Where To Find The Best Leaves For Cooking
In the wild or in your garden is a good place to start. Just make sure that any leaf used for cooking is safe to eat. You want to avoid the obvious like poison ivy and even tomato and potato leaves are toxic. And in case you haven’t heard, rhubarb leaves are considered poisonous, so just because you can eat some parts of a plant doesn’t mean you can eat the leaves.
Here are some options that are safe to eat, and then we’ll look at some recipes using a few of them:
- Grape leaves
- Dandelion leaves
- Radish leaves
- Turnip leaves
- Plantain leaves
- Corn husks
- Collard leaves
- Kale leaves
- Young burdock leaves
- Beet leaves
There are others and a quick search on the Internet can give you some good guidance if you’re wondering about a leaf, but we’ll keep it simple for now.
The basic idea is to use the leaf or a collection of leaves to wrap and surround a filling or stuffing, then expose it to heat. How many layers of leaves you need to use depends on the style of cooking.
Two Basic Styles of Cooking With Leaves:
- Direct cooking over coals involves either putting the leafy wrapped food directly on the coals, or cooking them over the coals on a rack. This works best for whole pieces like fish or fish filets and chunks or slices of meat like chicken, pork, or game.
This style of cooking usually requires multiple layers of leaves surrounding the food. The outer leaves will eventually dry and burn so you want multiple layers to protect the food.
The leaves should also be either parboiled or at least soaked in water. We’ll cover specific directions on wrapping and leaf prep in the recipes.
- Steam cooking with leaves involves putting the wrapped, leafy food into a pot with a lid and some water or broth in the bottom of the covered pot. Large root vegetables like potatoes or turnips are sometimes placed in the bottom of the pot to keep the leaves from coming in contact with the metal bottom. If a ceramic casserole dish is used, only a layer of leaves on the bottom of the dish is required.
Also, steam cooking usually requires only one layer of leaf wrapped around the fish, meat, or stuffing mix.
The whole pot is then simmered on a range top, in an oven, or—if in a Dutch oven—over open coals until everything is cooked through and tender. This works best for blended recipes combining rice, meat, and vegetables but also works well for fish and shellfish. If you’ve ever been to a clambake on the beach, layers of seaweed over coals are used the same way.
Harvesting The Best Leaves
There are some basic things you should consider when harvesting any leaf for this style of cooking.
Large leaves work best for wrapping. Leaves that fall in this category include:
- Grape leaves
- Burdock leaves
- Corn husks
- Collard leaves
Smaller leaves can also be used but they’ll need to be quickly parboiled and laid out to form a sheet for wrapping the food unless you’re rolling a small mixture with rice. You may even need to do this with larger leaves if you’re wrapping a large cut of meat. Leaves that fall into this smaller category include:
- Plantain leaves
- Beet leaves
- Dandelion leaves
- Radish leaves
Know your leaves. As we mentioned, some leaves are poisonous and common like rhubarb leaves. Other leaves are flavorful and benign like grape leaves. Don’t assume that any leaf will work. Know your wild plants and what the leaves look like. If in doubt, move on through the forest or go to the grocery store.
Nothing in the produce section at a grocery store is supposed to be toxic according to the FDA. That’s why rhubarb stalks are always removed from the leaf in the produce display. (Or at least they should be).
- Avoid wild leaves in public places that may have been exposed to chemicals like pesticides or herbicides. This applies to the garden as well if you’ve applied anything to leaves you don’t usually eat after harvest.
Roadside leaves could also be covered with exhaust, grit, and anything else that finds its way onto a road. And think twice about leaves that have been heavily chewed by bugs. They lay eggs on the leaf after they eat and also leave droppings on the leaf. I don’t like that.
Don’t be disappointed if you can’t find huge leaves. You can always combine smaller leaves to enclose your food and typically that’s what you’ll have to do.
Prepping Your Leaves
In a survival situation with limited resources, you can’t be too fussy, and you at least have the reassurance that the heat will kill any bugs. However, don’t assume that heat will make a toxic plant safe to eat. There are occasions where this is true, but it’s not worth the risk in a survival situation.
In a more domestic situation, I’d want to do the following with any leaf I planned to use for cooking:
- Wash it. Wash it. Wash it. Leaves, especially broad leaves, collect everything. A cold-water rinse is best. And don’t get complacent. Get these things clean. Let them soak and swirl them around in a bowl of water and rinse again. All sorts of dust, sand, bugs, and who knows what else (bird droppings?) could be on the leaf, so get them clean. You’re still going to immerse them in boiling water, but sand doesn’t dissolve in water at any temperature.
- Blanch them. This involves immersing them in a boiling pot of water and salt. You can add some vinegar if the leaves are bitter, as plantain and dandelions sometimes are. You immerse them for 60 seconds or more and then shock them in a bath of cold water. If you have ice for the shocking water, that helps.
- Feel them and taste them. Are they flexible and pliable? Do they taste okay? If they’re bitter and you plan to eat the leaf with any stuffing, drop them into the water for a few more minutes or add some vinegar to the water, return it to a boil and after a couple of minutes, you should be ready to roll… or wrap.
Some Recipes To Try
Rather than bog you down with long lists of ingredients, we’re going to look at these recipes from a conceptual perspective. You can feel free to improvise and season them any way you like. Cooking times vary, especially over open coals, so you’ll have to test the food for doneness as you go.
Grilled Mixed Vegetables in Wrapped Corn Husks
This is easy, and you can wrap just about anything in cornhusks and grill them.
- Start by peeling the husk back from the cob and break it off at the stem.
- Remove the silk and pull the leaves back into shape.
- Dice any combination of vegetables and season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Gather the husks around the contents.
- Tie the husks together at the top and across the middle.
- Grill over coals.
- When you think they’re done (about 10 minutes a side), cut the husk ties and give each person their own husk bowl.
Dolmades in Grape leaves
Dolmades are a classic Greek dish using grape leaves. Here’s how to make them:
- Blanch the grape leaves in hot water for a minute and then chill them in iced vinegar for about 10 minutes. This will make them soft and pliable.
- Cook two cups of rice and reserve.
- Brown one pound of ground beef.
- Toss the rice and ground beef into a bowl and season with ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of pepper, and a tablespoon of chopped mint either fresh or dried.
- Mix everything together with your hands.
- Place a finger-sized roll of the meat and rice mixture on a grape leaf.
- Roll up the mixture and tuck the rolls into a casserole dish lined with grape leaves.
- Repeat until the casserole dish is filled.
- Pour 1 cup of chicken broth into the dish and cover the dolmades with another layer of grape leaves.
- Bake at 325°F for 20 minutes.
- Remove the top layer of grape leaves and serve.
- Drizzle with some Avgolemono sauce if you like.
You can also use multiple layers of grape leaves to wrap a fish filet or piece of meat and grill them over coals with some dry grape leaves above and below to insulate them from the heat.
Chicken Grilled in Grape Leaves
You can roast any cut of meat or fish with this style of cooking, and you can cook it over coals or in the oven.
- Prep about 4 to 5 dozen grape leaves by dropping into boiling water for a minute and then shocking them in ice water or iced vinegar for 10 minutes.
- Spread the leaves out on a surface while overlapping the leaves and placing them in layers to create about 6 to 8 layers. Make sure you have enough leaves spread out to wrap the cut of meat.
- Season the meat any way you like.
- Wrap the cut of meat by folding up and overlapping the leaves.
- Bake at 350° F for 45 minutes or grill over coals for 20 minutes per side.
Mix And Match
If you can’t find enough of one kind of leaf to cover the food, it’s okay to mix and match. You may also need to do this to create enough insulating layers of leaves to protect the food from burning. My favorite combination is a mat of wild grape leaves, dandelions, and plantain leaves, but any edible leaf combination will work.
Cooking in leaves is great if you’re cooking in the kitchen and comes in real handy when cooking in the wild.
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