May 18, 2013

Cooking with FIG Leaves

Figs and Fig Leaves
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If you cook, then you probably have cooked with leaves. Herbs are culinary leaves, either dried or fresh, that have been around the cooking pot for a very long time. Culinary herbs are distinguished from vegetables in that, like spices, they are used in small amounts and provide flavor rather than substance to food. By culinary herbs I mean those little bottles that you probably have on your spice shelf, herbs like bay leaves, oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, coriander, and so on. 

Ancient cooks also used certain kinds of large culinary leaves in the cooking process, mostly to wrap food in during the cooking process. They found that these leaves, not only kept the food moist, but also gave off an added flavor to the food. The early Hawaiians used ti leaves, taro or banana leaves, even sea weed, to cover their food with before cooking in their underground oven called an imu. 

Banana leaves also play an important role in Vietnamese cuisine – they're used as a wrapper for sticky rice dumplings and whole fish. During cooking, banana leaves give food the flavor of tea and anise. Cooking with tea leaves is as old as the history of tea itself. The ancient Chinese used dried pungent oolong tea leaves to stuff fish before steaming it, or they added tea leaves to the fire source for smoking duck. 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 leaves – which are used only as wrappers – grape leaves are eaten along with their contents.

It turns out that there is another leaf that you can cook with, fig leaves. You probably don't think about the leaves of the fig tree as one of fig's edible parts. But in some cultures, fig leaves are a common part of the menu. I've been looking into cooking with fig leaves. Famous chefs like Alice Waters and Martha Stewart have been grilling and steaming fish, like salmon and halibut, in fig leaves for years. Fortunately I have a small brown turkey variety fig tree in my yard which I was told was the most popular of hundreds of varieties of fig trees. Unfortunately my figs are even more popular with the birds in my yard. They eat all of the fruit before it even gets ripe, leaving me with just the leaves. All the more reason to cook with them. It's actually quite simple to cook with fig leaves, but they usually aren't eaten, even though they are edible, but are usually used as a wrap in the cooking process. The sap in fig leaves imparts a wonderfully fragrant coconut-like aroma when grilled, and it keeps the fish juicy. Cooking fish in a fig leaf lets you use a minimal amount of fat to create a healthy, lean entree. Here's is how you do it:

Cooking Fish Wrapped In Fig Leaves
1 large pot
4 large fig leaves, stems removed and blanched
1 bowl ice water
4 fish fillets (mahi mahi, salmon, jumbo shrimp, sward fish, whatever you like)
olive oil
pastry brush
salt, or Tamari sauce or soy sauce
lemon or lime juice
rimmed baking sheet
meat thermometer

Preheat your oven or grill to 400˚F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Rinse the fig leaves in water and remove the stem. Place four large fig-leaves in the boiling water. Blanch the leaves for three to five minutes, until they are soft. Remove the leaves and immediately place them in a bowl of ice water to stop them from cooking.

Lay the fig leaves flat on the counter. Place a fish fillet, or shrimp on top of each leaf.

Paint the fish/shrimp with a small amount of olive oil, using a pastry brush. Sprinkle the fish with salt, or soy sauce, and pepper.

Squeeze lemon, or lime juice over the fish. Bring up the sides of the fig leaves and wrap each fillet.

Arrange the packages on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour 1/4 cup of water around the packages. Slide the sheet into the oven. Or, place the fish packages on the grill – folded sides facing down – if grilling.

Bake the fish for 10 minutes in an oven. If using a grill, allow three to four minutes of cooking time per side.

Open a fig leaf and check for doneness with a fork, or insert a thermometer through leaf into center of fish. It is ready when the thermometer reaches 140°F. The center of the fish must be opaque and flaky.

Remove the fish from the grill or oven; place the packages on a serving plate. Serve the fish wrapped in the fig leaves. Makes 4 servings.

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