Friday, February 22, 2008
Avocado Leaves: A Secret Mexican Ingredient
Avocado Leaves: A Secret Mexican Ingredient
by Victoria Challancin
Love at First Bite
I can still remember my first encounter with the exotic flavor of avocado leaves from almost twenty years ago when a friend brought a black bean dip, which she had learned to make from her husband’s family in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, to a potluck dinner. Like any motivated foodie, I almost made myself sick sampling, musing, and guessing what unknown ingredient I was tasting in what appeared to be an ordinary black bean dip. Finally, I capitulated to a curiosity that I couldn't quench on my own, tracked down the dip’s creator, and discovered that the mysterious, anise flavor of the black beans came from the addition of avocado leaf. Years later, after multiple trips to South and Central Mexico where avocado leaf is popular in regional dishes, and after countless cooking classes where I delighted and surprised my students with a new seasoning, I still thrill when people ask me, “What gives these black beans such an unusual taste?”
Harvested from the native Mexican avocado (Persea drymifolia), the leaves are used in both dried and fresh form to contribute an unusual anise flavor to a variety of dishes. In parts of Mexico, specifically the southern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, toasted and fresh leaves are added to (black) beans, tamales, soups, moles, pipianes, and stews. There are also layered into casseroles, used as a bed for roasting meats, and wrapped around fish, chicken, and meat when grilling. And yet here in San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, my Mexican cooking students are totally unfamiliar with avocado leaves as a flavoring. Last week I showed a class a cluster of avocado leaves on a stem and asked them if they knew what they were. Only one could identify them; none knew how to use them in cooking.
Are Avocado Leaves Safe to Eat?
Although the leaves of certain avocado cultivars from Guatemala (Persea Americana)
are considered toxic, the Mexican variety (var.drymifolia) isn’t. Diana Kennedy addresses this in her book From My Mexican Kitchen, "Because there has been some concern about toxicity of avocado leaves among some Californian aficionados, I think it is time to set the record straight. The toxicity reports relate back to a study done in 1984 at the University of California at Davis, which showed that dairy goats suffered some toxic effects from ingesting very large amounts of avocado leaves (the toxic agent remains unknown). The crucial point, according to Dr. Arthur L. Craigmill, toxicology specialist at Davis and one of the authors of the study, is that the toxic effects were traced to the Guatemalan avocado (Persea American). When the goats were fed Mexican avocado leaves (Persea dryminfolia), a different variety, there was no problem.” [These Latin spellings, which are given by Diana Kennedy, slightly differ from the ones I found in my research].
In addition to toxicity worries, aesthetics also may play a part in keeping this wonderful herbal accent in obscurity. Some fresh avocado leaves have small “galls” on the underside, which may look ugly, but are considered safe to eat. Chef and restauranteur Reed Hearon suggests that they actually enhance the flavor.
Are There Substitutes?
Although several very knowledgeable Mexican cooks suggest either a combination of bay leaves and anise or hoja santa leaf as a substitute for avocado leaves, I don’t really recommend these substitutions. Their flavors, though interesting, lack the authenticity of the oh-so-subtle hint of licorice imparted by the true leaves. Look for avocado leaves in Hispanic markets or order them online if you are not lucky enough to have fresh ones available. And if you do have access to a tree, be sure to crush a leaf and check for that indescribable anise aroma before throwing it into the pot.
How to Use Avocado Leaves
Most recipes call for toasting fresh or dried avocado leaves before using. After toasting, they can be added whole, ground, or crumbled to your dish, depending on how you are using them. Some leaves are more pungent that others, so start with a conservative amount, anywhere from one teaspoon of ground leaf to 1 whole leaf for an entire pot of beans. If you want a stronger flavor, simply add more.
To toast avocado leaves: Toast the avocado leaves in a hot, dry skillet or heated comal, pressing lightly with a spatula, or, using tongs, pass them over a live flame for about 10 seconds. Toasting heats up the natural oils in the leaves and brings out the licorice flavor. For this reason it is best only to toast what you will use in a particular recipe, toasting afresh for each use.
I suspect I never really make black beans the same way twice; my "recipe" depends on what I have on hand. Usually, I serve them once as just beans, garnished with avocado, cilantro or basil, grated cheese, sour cream, lime wedges, and some kind of salsa with either a Mexican or Mediterranean inspiration, depending on the rest of the meal. The next time I serve them, they are trotted out in puréed form as a dip or for serving as a sauce over quesadillas, eggs, or enfrijoladas (enchiladas with a bean sauce). This is how I prepared them yesterday:
Mexican Black Beans with Avocado Leaf
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Note: Most Mexican cooks will soak their dried beans overnight, time permitting. Universally, my Mexican students tell me that it helps prevent inflammation of the stomach and gas. I often fall prey to timing issues myself, but have discovered over the years that with black beans, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they are soaked or not. Some chefs actually say that presoaking breaks down the skins, leaving them mushy and unappeallingly gray. My puréed beans are gray no matter what I do. So soak or not—it’s up to you.
500g black beans, washed and picked over
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 large white onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 jalapeño or serrano chile, split in half lengthwise
1 branch of fresh epazote, if available
1 or 2 avocado leaves, fresh or dried, toasted (see above instructions)
Water as needed
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a large pot. Add onion. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes over medium heat; add peppers and continue cooking until soft, approximately for 6 minutes more. Add the garlic and chile. Cook for 1 minute. Add cold water to cover the beans by at least one inch. Add the epazote, if using. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat once the water starts to boil, cover, and cook for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, or until beans are tender, adding additional water as necessary. Add toasted avocado leaves during the last 15 minutes with salt to taste. Discard chiles, epazote, and avocado leaves. Serve with garnishes such as sour cream, grated cheese, avocado, salsa, cilantro, and lime wedges.
Are There Medical Uses?
Of course there are. Of course. For centuries, perhaps millennia, herbalists have said that for every disease known to man, there is a plant-based cure. An extension of this belief is also held be many: for any disease that affects any given human population, the plant that cures it grows near-by. And so it goes with avocado leaves in the world of folk medicine. As a treatment for intestinal parasites, avocado leaf tea and sometimes the peel of the fruit are used in the various countries in the Americas, where the plant originated. The leaf combined with the avocado tree bark has also been used as a cough treatment and for digestive disorders. To increase breast milk, the leaves are sometimes eaten raw, but beware, as the leaves and bark of young stems are also used to induce abortions in pregnant women. Considered a carminative, or gas reducer, the leaves are used in the treatment of diarrhea, gas, and abdominal bloating. The leaves are considered helpful as well in ridding the body of high levels of uric acid, which can lead to gout. And while I can’t attest to its efficacy, I can say that there are many phytochemical research sites that have ongoing studies using avocado leaf extract for treating such varied conditions as high cholesterol, epilepsy, and liver obstructions. For now, I’ll stick to their use as a bit of culinary exotica.