Natural Mexican ciusine: It's a wrap Using a variety of leaves, ancient cooking method creates bundles of flavor

April 28, 1993|By Patricia Quintana and Peg Rosen | Patricia Quintana and Peg Rosen,Contributing Writers/Los Angeles Times Syndicate

During one of my prolonged visits to the United States this year, a friend treated me to dinner at a trendy restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village. On the stylish menu, I spotted a red snapper fillet steamed in banana leaves, the thought of which magically transported me home to Mexico.

Cooking in leaves may be trendy stateside, but it has been a basic method of Mexican cuisine for hundreds of years. Ancient cooks discovered early on the many culinary virtues of leaves and husks. First and foremost, these natural wrappers prevented food from burning and helped retain its natural moisture and flavor. This was very important because everything was cooked without lard and largely depended upon the uneven heat of open fires.

Mexico's ancestors also knew that leaves and husks added flavor to their food. Whether spit-roasting an entire turkey in banana leaves or steaming delicate trout in fresh corn husks, they found the wrappers literally perfumed meat and fish with their subtle flavor.

From our humblest homes to Mexico City's most sophisticated restaurants, natural wrappers continue to play a key role in the Mexican kitchen. We use them to make tamales (those ubiquitous cornmeal dumplings most often wrapped in corn husks) and a whole universe of meat, fish and vegetable dishes. We love using leaves and husks as much for their cooking qualities and flavor as for the dazzling presentation they make at our dining tables.

The leaves we choose to cook with often depend upon what is grown nearby. For example, in the state of Oaxaca and on the Yucatan Peninsula, cooks prepare tamales with locally grown banana leaves instead of corn husks. They fill these plate-sized beauties with such hearty fare as turkey in lusty black mole sauce, roasted pork or virtually any treasure from the sea.

Because banana leaves are large and durable, they are particularly wonderful for roasting meat and fish. Homey eateries on both Mexican coasts use them for steaming freshly caught fish, which are then sprinkled with lime juice, cilantro and chiles. The Yucatan's Mayan cooks wrap entire baby pigs in banana leaves and roast them under the sand until the meat falls right off the bones. In my kitchen, these leaves and others help me prepare healthful, low-fat chicken and fish dishes, since steaming cuts the need for heavy fats and oils.

When it comes to adding flavor, few leaves can rival the hoja santa, a heart-shaped beauty with an exquisite anise taste and velvetlike surface. Because of its assertive flavor, hoja santa is best when wrapped around such subtly flavored foods as fish, chicken and cheese.

There are numerous places where you should be able to find natural wrappers in the United States. Corn husks are sold at Hispanic and Caribbean grocery stores, as well as at an many gourmet specialty shops. You can often find banana leaves at these same locations, as well as at southeast Asian and Filipino stores. These and the hoja santa leaf (as well as other Mexican ingredients) are also available through mail-order houses, such as El Aficionado, 2365 N. Quincy St., Arlington, Va. 22207, (800) 622-4317.

When cooking with leaves, be sure to wash them thoroughly and cover them with a moist towel while you work. Folding each package takes a bit of practice, so be sure to buy enough to allow for errors. Finally, if you are not confident about wrapping or don't have the time, you can achieve similar results by steaming food between two thick layers of leaves in a casserole, Chinese bamboo steamer or double boiler.

* If you're watching fat and calories, you'll want to add this recipe your file. If you don't have time to prepare the broth, the fish bundles for this dish are also perfectly delicious on their own.

Sea bass steamed in greens

Makes 6 servings.

FISH:

18 large hoja santa (can substitute Swiss chard leaves)

6 thick sea bass, salmon, pompano or red snapper fillets, each about 8 ounces

salt, ground pepper

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 small green peppers, finely chopped

2 Caribe chilies or 12 Anaheim chilies, finely chopped

olive oil

1 1/2 cups cilantro leaves with stems

1 pound plum tomatoes, finely chopped

BROTH:

8 cups fish broth or clam juice

10 hoja santa or Swiss chard leaves, chopped

1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro

2 jalapeno chilies, chopped

2 cups chopped onions

4 large cloves garlic, chopped

6 whole allspice

salt

To prepare fish, use a large steamer, Chinese bamboo steame placed over a wok, or double boiler, and line with layer of 6 washed hoja santa leaves. Wash and dry remaining 12 leaves. Lay leaves out in pairs, with edges of each set slightly overlapping. Place a fish fillet in center of each pair of leaves and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

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