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Eat your avocado… leaves?! August 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Having once again succumbed to a new cookbook (cover your ears, Ben, and anyway, it was on sale), I made a rather startling discovery as I flipped through the colorful pages: apparently, avocado leaves are edible. The book, The Complete Mexican, South American & Caribbean Cookbook, included dried avocado leaves in several recipes, including one for refried beans, a favorite dish here at Hawk’s Haven.

Say what? Don’t tell me there’s actually a use for those homely hippie-hangover avocado houseplants grown from avocado pits?! And what on earth would avocado leaves taste like, anyway? The book, alas, provided no answers.

Turning to my good friend Google, I was directed to a most informative website, Gourmet Sleuth (www.gourmetsleuth.com), which devoted an entire page to avocado leaves. According to the site, the leaves, called hojas de aguacate, are harvested from a Mexican species of avocado, Persea drymifolia, and are used both fresh and dried in Mexican cuisine.

Gourmet Sleuth notes that the fresh leaves are used as a flavoring for tamales and made into a bed for barbecuing meats, and the dried leaves can be used in bean dishes, soups and stews. They point out that Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy recommends them as a substitute for hoja santa, aromatic leaves of another Mesoamerican plant (Piper auritum) that’s related to black pepper.

But what do the leaves taste like? Apparently, according to another Mexican food authority and famous chef, Rick Bayless, they taste sort of like a combination of bay leaves and aniseeds. In fact, he recommends substituting a mix of bay leaves and cracked aniseeds if you don’t happen to have avocado leaves on hand.

Wait a minute, I thought at this point, I have a couple of Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks in my collection. Let’s take a look in the horse’s mouth (so to speak). Pulling down The Tortilla Book, I saw to my surprise that not just the leaves, but even the skin and pit were edible: “The leaves… can be cooked with barbecues or tamales; or they can be lightly toasted, ground, and added to a pipian (a stew thickened with ground nuts or seeds) or fried beans. The skin of the small, black avocado grown in Mexico can be mashed with the flesh to give a rather special texture and anisey flavor. And… [you can let the pit] dry and grate a little of it into an enchilada sauce—as it is used in northern Mexico—but not too much, or the sauce will be quite bitter.” Who’d’a thunk?! In Mexican Regional Cooking, she adds approvingly that leaves of the popular ‘Fuerte’ variety “had a strong, rich flavor,” so if you live where these are grown and don’t have access to the Mexican avocado, bear this in mind. 

Gourmet Sleuth, via Diana Kennedy, also addressed rumors that avocado leaves were toxic. Apparently, this is based on a single report in which goats that consumed a large quantity of avocado leaves from an entirely different species, Guatemalan avocado (Persea americana), suffered toxic effects. Ms. Kennedy notes rather drily that it’s extremely unlikely that the quantity of avocado leaves used in recipes—the refried bean recipe in my book called for 4 or 5—would have any toxic effects, and that in any case, if you buy the dried leaves, they’re from the nontoxic Mexican species. I might add that you’d think if the leaves were toxic to humans, there’d be reports of Mexicans, not to mention Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Bayless, dropping dead after eating them, which has not been the case. In fact, according to Answers.com, “In Panamanian culture of the Azuero Peninsula, a tea is made from the leaves and used to treat high blood pressure.”

Having dealt with the sensational, let’s move on to the revolting. (Well, revolting to me, in any case; fans of agave-based liquors sold with dead “worms” floating in the bottles will be fine with this.) Also according to Gourmet Sleuth, when you harvest or buy avocado leaves, you’ll often find small galls on the underside, which, they assure us, are harmless and actually enhance the leaves’ flavor. That may be so, but galls are made by insects to house their larvae. Being vegetarian, I think I’ll pass, but thanks anyway.

If you want to try avocado leaves in your own cuisine, the site provides recipes, including enfrijoladas (tortillas in bean sauce), mixiote de pollo (spicy chicken packets), and pork loin with avocado leaves. Or you can add 4 or 5 dried, crushed or ground leaves to your next pot of refried beans and see what you think. There’s a trick to bring out the best flavor, though: dry-roast the dried leaves in a cast-iron skillet briefly just prior to crumbling or grinding them for use in your recipe. You can even order a supply of the dried leaves directly from the Gourmet Sleuth page.

Getting back to those dippy hippies and their homegrown avocado plants: Can you grow and eat your own? Well, apparently the ‘Hass’ avocado, the blackish-green, bumpy one you’d be most likely to buy in the grocery, is a hybrid that includes Guatemalan avocado in its background. While the leaves really wouldn’t be likely to harm you, they won’t be nearly as tasty as leaves from the Mexican avocado. And forget about getting fruit from those seed-grown plants, which pretty much will never bear in a container, since they reach great heights in nature (as in 69-foot-tall trees). And as all gardeners know, fruit from hybrid seeds never comes true.

All is not lost, however: Logee’s greenhouse (www.logees.com) sells an avocado plant that will bear fruit in a container. Their miniature variety, ‘Day’, is grafted so the fruit will be true to its parent, and it will begin setting fruit 2 or 3 years after you purchase a plant from them (for $39.95). Here’s what they have to say about it: “Plants will fruit at about 3 feet in height and will produce a medium-sized tapered-neck avocado that is easy to peel and has a delicious, buttery sweet taste. The fruit will hold on the plant for six months with ripening occurring from July to September.” (Avocados bloom in spring in the U.S.) Plants eventually reach 4 to 6 feet tall and can also be planted in the ground if you live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 9 or warmer. In-ground or in a container, they require full sun.

That’s the good news for avocado fruit lovers. The bad news for avocado leaf lovers: ‘Day’ is a Persea americana, not a Mexican avocado (as is ‘Fuerte’, fyi). If anybody knows a source of Mexican avocado plants, please let us know! And ditto if you have a favorite recipe that uses avocado leaves.

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

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Comments»

1. catharine howard - August 31, 2011

Gourmet sleuth par excellence. I would consider myself lucky to have a lone advocado let alone the leaves. You are right definite hippy resonance.

Thanks, Catharine! And I agree, now I’m very tempted to get an avacado plant! But I think I’d go for the mini one…

2. mr_subjunctive - September 1, 2011

I checked into this a little on PATSP today, if you’re interested. It turns out to be complex.

Thanks, Mr. S.! I’ll head right over!

3. john peter - May 20, 2012

diana kennedy was wrong infact the leaves are better off than tea leaves


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