In a recent bout of Mexican cooking (I go through periods, I just wrapped up a long stretch of Italian). I encountered, or more specifically, paid attention for the first time to the ingredient – avocado leaves (hojas de aguacate). In most cases, they list this ingredient as “optional”, but I had to wonder what authentic flavor have I sacrificed in my acceptance of a short cut, and perhaps more importantly what exactly are avocado leaves?
Please note, that when I refer to avocado leaves in this post, I refer specifically to Mexican avocado leaves, not Haas, or any of the other varieties. They have a toxicity issue, which I’ll expand on. Besides, the desired taste in the leaves applies only to the Mexican variety, the more tropical varieties of which Haas is one, lack this aroma.
Harold McGee tells us theses avocado leaves are of the laurel family, and so are related to bay leaves and sassafras or filé. Its can be used fresh or dried. This ingredient is common in the dishes of south central Mexico.
Fresh leaves are used in Oaxaca as abed for barbecuing meat and flavoring tamales.
Dried leaves are common additions to soups, stews and bean recipes. Diana Kennedy suggests substituting this leaf for hoja santa which is also used to flavor chocolate drinks in Central Mexico.
Avocado leaves are harvested from the native Mexican avocado Peresea drymifolia. The leaves impart a slightly anisey flavor.
Rick Bayless, Chicago Mexican food expert, suggests substituting a combination of bay leaves and cracked anise seeds for avocado leaves. He also points out that dried leaves with a vibrant olive-green color have more flavor than their pale companions. Unbroken leaves are a sign of careful handling and higher quality.
Reports of Toxicity with Avocado Leaves
Reports have been presented regarding toxic avocado leaves, and Diana Kennedy in her book From My Mexican Kitchen does a good job of clarifying the issues:
“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.
The Hass avocado, the best tasting one grown in America, is a hybrid of indeterminate origin though its DNA tests positive for a Guatemalan ancestor—hence the suspicions. No one has ever tested Hass leaves for toxicity, but it seems unlikely that the small amounts used in cooking would cause any problems… When in doubt, choose based on taste and that leads you to the aromatic Mexican leaves which are available in the U.S.”
Avocado Leaf Galls
Small “galls” can form on the underside of the avocado leaves. They are edible and actually add an enhanced flavor, per San Francisco chef Reed Hearon of Cafe Marimba, Restaurant LuLu, Rose Pistola et al.
Beef with Chili and Avocado Leaves
(recipe adapted from the the Mexican Gourmet)
Texmole, from Coxcatlan, Puebla, is a variety of mole de olla.
- 2-¾ # beef short ribs
- 5 c water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 c greenbeans, cut into thirds
- 2 guajillo or cascabel chillis
- 1-¼ # tomatoes, halved and seeded
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic
- ½ c water
- 3 avocado leaves
- 20 squash blossoms, cleaned and chopped
- 3 zucchini, cubed
- 2c potatoes, peeled and cubed
For the Chochoyotes (masa dumplings)
- ½ c masa harina
- 1/3 c warm water
- ½ T lard
- ¼ tsp salt
In a large saucepan, cover the short ribs with water and salt and cook until the meat is just falling off the bone, ~ 1 to 1½ hours. Just as it starts to cool, skim the fat off the stock, and reserve the stock. Remove the meat from the bones, discarding the fat and tendons.
Cook the green beans in boiling, salted water until just tender, and drain.
Puree the chilies, tomatoes, onion, garlic and water in a blender until smooth. Pour into a soup pot with reserved stock. Add the avocado leaves, squash blossoms, and zucchini, and bring to a boil, and simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes.
FOR THE CHOCHOYOTES: Combine the masa harina and water and mix well, add the lard and salt, and combine until well blended. form ¾” balls and make a small indentation on one side with your finger.
Add the dumplings and potatoes and simmer for 15 minutes, until cooked. Add the beans and meat, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add salt and season to taste. Enjoy!
NOTE: Found avocado leaves at Casa Guadeloupe in the Mission District in San Francisco. They have a brand called Mama’s that bills itself as supplying spices to the Bay Area.