Warm rains have the spring garden bursting at the seams. Seemingly overnight, the abundance of green has gone from exhilarating to terrifying. Lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, and chicory are all filling out with lush, tender leaves. It’s the best time of year to become a leaf eater.
The term “leaf eater” was an insult hurled at Southern Italians, who love both wild and cultivated dark green leafy vegetables and ate them in great abundance in the days before pasta and tomatoes. The Italians still love their greens and remain a great source of seed for tasty varieties of broccoli, kale, chard, cabbage, escarole, endive, and more. I am currently growing “Chard Verde de Taglio”, which makes very sweet and tender leaves, and a smooth-leaf spinach called “Matador” along with the tried and true variety “Space.” Beautiful butterhead lettuces–“Nancy”, “May Queen”, “Four Seasons”, and “Deer Tongue”–are at their soft and crunchy best.
Leaf eating is not limited to the Southern Italians. My motto is “Leaf Eaters of the World, Unite”, and I am always ready to go on culinary expeditions to search for new ways to put more green leaves into food. My favorite leaf-eating experiences involve using leaves as wraps and scoops. A Thai friend taught me to scoop up intensely flavored carrot salad with bok choi leaves and wrap an assortment of ingredients in a spinach leaf to make a “flavor bundle.”
Making “flavor bundles” is the perfect introduction to the Thai philosophy of food, which Thai food authority Su-Mei Yu says can be summed up in two words: arroy, meaning delicious, and sanuk, meaning fun and bringing pleasure. Thai food is both delicious and fun because of the playful jostling of seasonings, flavors, aromas and textures. Choosing from an array of vibrant, boldly flavorful ingredients, wrapping them in a leaf, and popping it in your mouth and letting them explode is quintessential sanuk.
A “flavor bundle” meal is an easy and relaxed way to eat because even though there are a fair number of ingredients, you don’t have to do much with them other than chop them up. It’s also a good way to get to know how the different flavors and textures play off each other, and to experience the elements of contrast and surprise so important in Thai and other Asian cooking. You can make slightly different combinations to adjust the salty, sweet, sour, hot taste sensations with each mouthful. Enjoy!
Miang kham, Miang neua, and Miang lao are a snack or street foods in Southeast Asia and can be translated with names like “savory bite”, “one-bite leaf”, and “leaf-wraps”. Like antipasti, they make great appetizers but can easily become a whole meal when eaten with rice or noodles. The traditional fillings can be simply an assortment of finely chopped condiments, or include more substantial ingredients like shrimp, beef, or pork.
I like to include tofu, as well.
Ingredients: Perfect middle-size leaves from garden or farmers’ market spinach, bibb or butterhead lettuce, mild-flavored “sugarhat” chicory, cabbage, or other tender leaves
Fillings/Condiments: Prepare 1/4 to 1/2 cup each for 4 to 6 servings…. finely chopped fresh ginger (young, fresh ginger is best, but you can use pickled ginger or regular ginger soaked in a mixture of equal parts lime juice and water), finely chopped shallot, scallions, or sweet onion, unsweetened shredded coconut (dry-roast over medium-low heat until lightly browned and fragrant), dry-roasted chopped peanuts or cashews, minced fresh chiles, chopped coriander or mint leaves, 1 lime (remove seeds, chop whole lime in 1/8-inch dice)
One of the following: Seared tofu, boiled or grilled shrimp, spicy ground beef, stir-fried tamarind-pork (or turkey)…or, keep it simple: use thin slices of grilled steak, salmon, tuna, or smoked fish.
Accompaniments: Lime wedges and nuoc cham dipping sauce
To eat: Set out all the filling ingredients out in individual bowls or on a platter, with a large bowl of washed and dried leaves in the center. Place a leaf in your palm and put a small amount of meat, tofu, or fish in the middle. Add a pinch or two of any of the other filling ingredients and a drizzle of dipping sauce or squeeze of lime. Roll up the leaf and pop it in you mouth.
Spicy Ground Beef
Ingredients: 4 to 6 unpeeled garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 2 to 4 small dried chiles (or 1 tsp red chile flakes), 1 tsp lemon or lime zest, 1/4 tsp coarse salt, 1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds, 2 Tbs peanut or other oil, 1/2 cup chopped shallot or white onion, 1/2 lb. lean ground beef (tenderloin or sirloin), 1/3 cup chopped garlic chives or scallions, 1/2 cup chopped coriander, 2 or 3 Tbs chopped mint
Heat a skillet over medium heat and toast the sesame seeds, stirring constantly. Set aside. Put the garlic cloves on the hot skillet and dry-roast 10 to 15 minutes, until softened and lightly charred on both sides. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the peeled garlic with the salt to make a paste, Add the ginger, chile, and zest, and pound into the paste. Add the sesame seeds and pound briefly.
Heat the oil in the skillet and stir in the shallots or onion. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic-chile paste and cook 20 to 30 seconds. Raise the heat a little and add the ground meat. Stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped herbs.
Ingredients: 1/2 lb lean pork (use lean ground pork or finely chopped fresh ham or loin cuts…or substitute ground turkey), 2 Tbs oil, 1/2 cup chopped shallot or white onion, 3 Tbs chopped garlic, 1 to 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1 Tbs tamarind concentrate mixed with 2 Tbs hot water and 1 1/2 Tbs palm or brown sugar, 1 Tbs minced fresh ginger
Stir-Fry: Heat a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the shallot or onion and garlic and stir-fry 3 to 4 minutes. Add the pork or turkey and stir-fry until all the pink color is gone, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium; add the fish sauce and tamarind mixture and simmer a few minutes until the liquid is gone. Stir in the ginger and cook 1 minute. Season with salt to taste.
Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
Ingredients: 2 tsp chopped garlic, pinch sea salt, 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, 1/4 cup Thai fish sauce, 1/4 cup water, 2 tsp rice vinegar, 1 to 3 tsp sugar (or to your taste), 1 tsp chile paste or 1 or 2 minced small fresh hot chiles
Use a mortar and pestle to mash the garlic and salt to make a paste. Stir in all the other ingredients and adjust the flavor to your taste.
Ingredients: 1/3 cup fresh orange juice, 1 tsp orange zest, 2 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1 tsp lime zest, 1 Tbs rice vinegar, 2 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1/4 tsp cayenne or crushed red chile, 2 tsp toasted sesame oil, 4 to 5 Tbs soy sauceI wish you happy snacking. More recipes for filling and dipping leaf-wrapped flavor bundles will come soon.