Special Ingredients: Avocado Leaves

Mama's brand avocado leaves

Mama's brand avocado leaves

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.  

fresh leaves (photo from botany.hawaii.edu)

fresh leaves (photo from botany.hawaii.edu)

Taste:

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

Beef Stew (photo from cooking.com)

Beef Stew (photo from cooking.com)

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.

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24 comments for “Special Ingredients: Avocado Leaves

  1. May 30, 2009 at 6:02 PM

    you accidentally deleted your blog? how did that happen? Reminds me, I keep trying to get to this other girl’s blog but the site said she has deleted her blog, too.
    wow…I never knew you could use avocado leaves for cooking purposes! FASCINATING…esp since I’ve just started appreciating avocadoes myself!

  2. May 30, 2009 at 9:14 PM

    I’m so glad that you were able to recover all the old posts.

    I seen that same brand in the picture above. Though I’ve never paid much attention to it. Maybe now I should. I didn’t realize that they can be used for cooking purposes as well. I’m so used to bay leave only.

  3. May 31, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    I’ve never seen these. I use bay leaves a lot, too. But love avocado and anise! I’ll be on the lookout for these.

  4. May 31, 2009 at 1:20 PM

    Great info, as usual! I’d love to try cooking with avocado leaves. I’m always interested in learning more about authentic Mexican cuisine.

  5. May 31, 2009 at 5:09 PM

    I was just reading about avocado leaves–I think in Gourmet–and had kind of forgotten about them. This
    stew looks great, wishing I had all the ingredients in my cupboard right now. Let’s see–I do have lots of chilies brought back from Oaxaca, but not avocado leaves, so will go looking soon.

  6. May 31, 2009 at 5:24 PM

    Great post about avocado leaves. I didn’t know you can cook with them! The beef stew looks delicious.

  7. May 31, 2009 at 8:58 PM

    Wonder if I can find these avocado leaves! A very interesting ingredient!

    Glad you were able to recover you blog, that’s scary. Last weekend I accidentally overwrote my layout with a basic one that I didn’t want and had no back up for the old one which had a lot of my customized changes. Thankfully, it only took me a few hours to customize a new one.

  8. June 1, 2009 at 4:15 AM

    Mmmm :) You can also make nice fish dishes with them.

  9. June 1, 2009 at 2:56 PM

    Avocados are so delicious but I never knew that the leaves were useful, too (not that I’ve ever seen an avocado leaf before!) The beef stew recipe looks great but I’m most taken by the masa dumplings.

    And congratulations on your 2nd place win in FoodGal’s “Wine, Dine and Thine” contest! If only we took your grandmother’s ‘enough to be naughty’ measure – we sometimes imbibe more than enough to tip over into the ‘incorrigible’ state!

  10. June 1, 2009 at 5:21 PM

    How interesting that avocados, which don’t taste like anise at all, can have that flavor in their leaves. Who would have thunk it? Thanks for a wealth of information on an ingredient new to me.

  11. June 1, 2009 at 6:12 PM

    Are fresh avocado leaves used? How? And to what effect? Thanks for doing the research!

  12. oysterculture
    June 1, 2009 at 6:41 PM

    Andrea – The suggested uses in the quick search I found included flavoring tamales, and as a bed for barbecuing meats. I am sure there are many more options. Brenda, also mentioned that they work great with fish.

    Carolyn – I know, it was a new one for me. I had an epiphany, after years of seeing them listed as optional, I suddenly asked myself, hey what am I missing.

    TN – I could eat avocados morning, noon, and night. I love them! Some how, I had my suspicions that you would go past stew and straight to dumplings =)

    Brenda – sounds wonderful – do you use the fresh or dried versions? Or does it matter?

  13. June 1, 2009 at 9:03 PM

    You know how to push my buttons! I dream of traveling to Oxaca and spending a month to learn their traditional cooking methods, and work on my es Spaniol! Love your research, are you working on a book? I also dream of being a food historian and introducing the idea to the culinary education…

  14. June 2, 2009 at 7:31 PM

    Yikes … moving. This is the reason I don’t even think about moving my blog anywhere even when I know I should. Hope things go smoothly from this point on.

    Great info about avacado leaves. The post is full of things I didn’t know. The stew recipe sounds like something you want in front of you when the weather is cold and rainy. Short ribs and carby dumplings just scream comfort food to me.

  15. June 3, 2009 at 2:03 AM

    MMMMMM..that beef recipe looks really excellent, even that I rarely eat beef,….Maybe you can convert me,…

  16. tokyoterrace
    June 3, 2009 at 7:39 AM

    Wow! I’ve never come across a recipe that calls for avocado leaves, but now I’m intrigued…very interesting read! The recipe at the end looks great, as well. Nice post!

  17. June 3, 2009 at 2:24 PM

    I actually just read about avocado leaves but I have yet to use them. This stew is fantastic! Perfect for an overcast spring day like today! What a variety of yummy ingredients…anise is one of my favorite spices.

    Oh, yes…the little take out place is called Yamo, it’s on 18th and Mission. It’s actually burmese food…they have lots of stuff though. Looks like a tiny hole in the wall but it’s soooo good.

    And good luck with the blog stuff…I know it can be nerve racking!!!

  18. June 4, 2009 at 8:38 AM

    Avocado is a new veg in Turkey, so we don’t know much about it. And I don’t have any idea about its leaves. But I am so curious about it, I want to learn more about it. So this post is quite helpful for me.

  19. June 4, 2009 at 12:58 PM

    Valuable info in this post. I have never heard of cooking with avocado leaves. i have an avocado tree, does the variety of the avocado matter?

  20. oysterculture
    June 4, 2009 at 1:26 PM

    Jackie: The avocados matter, for taste they say to get the leaves from the Mexican avocado and not other varieties such as Hass. They also mentioned that in addition to lack of taste, there is a toxicity component to the Hass, so its Mexican avocados all the way!

    Zerrin: Once you try avocados, you’ll be hooked, I cannot wait to see what you do with them.

    Lisa: On my way to check out Yamo, sounds wonderful.

    Rachel: thanks!

    Sophie: the leaves supposedly also go good with fish, so you might want to give that option a whirl.

    Leela: Yikes is right, everything seems to be taking 4 times as long and equally as hard.

  21. June 4, 2009 at 5:49 PM

    Well kudos to you! I learned something today! I am a well known forager and there are avocado trees all over my neighborhood, and while I cannot always reach the fruit I know I can get me some of the leaves.

    PS I am adding you to my friends of sippitysup so I make sure and cruise by here regularly.

  22. June 8, 2009 at 5:29 AM

    Well, well – I never knew that avocado leaves were in anyway edible – though, I suspect for now, that I would have to content myself with the bay leaf + anise substitution, unless I find a good mexican supplier hereabouts.

    And good luck with the wordpress move – I know how nervewracking such things can be.

  23. June 13, 2009 at 12:23 AM

    Have never used these before, but I think I would like their anise-y flavor!

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