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Cinco De Mayo : Splendor in the Leaves : Techniques: Cooking food wrapped in leaves and husks may be trendy in U.S. restaurants, but it's been a basic method of Mexican cuisine for hundreds of years.

April 29, 1993|PATRICIA QUINTANA | with PEG ROSEN

During one of my prolonged visits to the 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. Just thinking about it, I was suddenly and magically transported home to Mexico.

The bright lights and loud music quickly faded; there I was at one of the simple Veracruz restaurants where I have often savored this precise dish. I could feel the sand between my toes and the velvet embrace of a tropical night. And I could just taste the succulent steamed fish and tangle of sweet onions tucked inside the emerald-green package on my plate.

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 the many culinary virtues of leaves and husks. First and foremost, these natural wrappers prevented food from burning and helped retain natural moisture and flavor. This was important because everything was cooked without lard and depended largely upon the uneven heat of open fires. (Europeans introduced lard as a cooking medium much later.)

Ancient cooks 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 that the wrappers literally perfumed meat and fish with their subtle flavor. Smaller bundles also served as convenient portable meals for hunters and tradesmen who spent long days away from home. Even the ancients had their version of "fast food."

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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 corn masa 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 special 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 caught from the sea.

Because banana leaves are large and quite durable, they are particularly wonderful for roasting meat and fish. Homey restaurants on both 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 because 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 velvet-like surface. Because of its assertive flavor, hoja santa is best when wrapped around such subtly flavored foods as fish, chicken and cheese. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to find in Los Angeles.

One of my favorite preparations comes from the state of Tabasco, where chunks of sea bass are wrapped in hoja santa and served in steaming bowls of herb broth. In our cities, chefs wrap hoja santa around prawns, fresh mozzarella cheese and even scrambled eggs flecked with black truffles.

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The avocado leaf, which is easier to find here, is another favorite in the Mexican kitchen, both as a wrapper and as an ingredient in moles and soups. However, only the leaves of mature trees boast the distinctive flavors of anise and bay leaf for which they are loved, so don't be tempted to pluck the leaves off your house plants!

There are numerous places where you should be able to find natural wrappers in Southern California. Corn husks are sold at Latino and Caribbean grocery stores, as well as at an increasing number of 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 kitchen towel while you work. Folding each package takes a bit of practice, so be sure to buy enough to allow for errors. 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.

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