Thursday, August 8, 2013

COOKBOOK TALK: Why I Cook in Leaves

My infatuation over the Galloping Gourmet ended abruptly once I discovered three-dimensional real-time boys.
     Latino hunk, Manuel, swept me off my middle school, size five feet.  It was on his tie-dyed bedding, surrounded by black velvet rock art and the required black lights, that I had my first…
     The doctored masa with a choice of fillings steamed in cornhusk qualifies in my book as food cooked in leaves.  What’s a husk if not a glorified leaf with static cling?  I must have known I’d someday write this cookbook.  You could say I used Manuel for my tamale education.  But, he got even ten-fold using me for my social studies test answers.  Our mutual opportunism ended after a mouthwatering two weeks.
     I honed my taste for the exotic with Freshmen crush, Eric.  His Behemian father gave me smuggling tips for getting betal leaves into the US.  They are stimulants and anti flatulents (the latter, I joked, was the reason commercial importations are banned). 
betal leaves
The mildly addictive cousin of cocaine is commonly sold on the streets throughout Asia where people wrap betel nuts, lime and spices in them. 
Pate in Cabbage Leaves
A Hungarian defector helped me refine my stuffed cabbage galumpkies. At left is a later rendition, an entire cabbage stuffed with pate and served cold as an appetizer.  Later a twine-thin African American broke every food stereotype by eating only endives (sans the filling I offer up in the cookbook). 
Stuffed Endives
His anorexia made him much less appealing around meal times.  Then there was the Jewish intellect.  He liked kosher stuffed cabbages but not his mother’s corn flakes-coated gefilte fish.  He confused me with one set of dishes for dairy and one for meat, a yearly clearing of the yeast, and his inability to de-bone fish on the Sabbath. 
Then came first generation Christophoros, AKA Greek God.  I loved him as only a food-crazed high school girl can love.  Everything about him tantalized my senses. 
I could smell his house from a block away, like approaching the Greek Orthodox gate into heaven: garlic, onions and green peppers browning in extra-virgin olive oil, tomato and lemon juice simmering with bulgar, goat feta and something briny that turned out to be preserved grape leaves, which developed into an obsession that lasted beyond the six years we dated. 
Chris’s mother, Helena Papos, was an olive-chubby Cypriot who stood only as tall as my shoulders.  But she was a giant if measured by her pastichio and baklava.
She taught me what I needed to know to marry her son.  The path to his eternal devotion, she assured me, led right to his stomach.
No one could more skillfully incorporate kasseri cheese into bread, fold spanikopita into perfect triangles, or better teach the fine art of filling and rolling vine leaves into dolmathes.  
“Every girl should make dolmas,” Helena said with pinched Os and not-quite D’s. 
She instructed, “Pull the clump of leaves from the jar.  Rinse.  Flatten one out on the counter, veins up. Now add filling like this.”
I emulated.

“No, no, not enough.  You’ll starve my Christophoros to death with that pea-sized filling.”
I scooped more onto the leaf.
“Roll like this.  Like a cigar.”
I was suppose to know how cigars were rolled?
“Side near you up.  Two sides in.”
I copied her motions.
Over the next half hour, we rolled and wrapped and packed the Dolmas until we had enough to satiate all the circle dancing members of a typical Greek wedding reception.  We’d sealed the stuffed leaves, we’d sealed our friendship.
Thanks to Helena, I was hooked on cooking in Leaves.
Inky - AKA Karen Albright Lin

1 comment:

  1. My mother-in-law has a Greek friend named Josie. For one of her many weddings, my MIL decided she wanted Greek food for the reception and pressed sweet Josie into unpaid catering duties. For several weekends before the big day, Chef Josie, her daughter, several friends, and I prepared spanikopita, dolmas, and baklava straight from heaven. Handling tissue-thin phyllo w/o tearing it was a challenge not for the faint of heart. But...I learned if one person holds each end, with another supporting the flimsy middle, we could place each single layer over the chopped nuts, then brush with melted sweet butter, w/o too many casualties. However, we were allowed to eat our failures, which might have been counter-productive since even failures melted delightfully in our mouths.

    I remember vividly how each spanikopita took five minutes to carefully fold like a flag, but only five seconds to eat.

    When I tried later to make baklava by myself, I discovered it is impossible with only one set of hands. Definitely an activity to share with a friend.