Elsaina

Posted on March 10, 2011

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I wait all year for the months of January, February and March – the rainy days with their dramatic skies and the sunshine that can actually be enjoyed.  And of course, the green!   Every spare patch of earth is bursting with some kind of eager plant-life.  And so much of it is even edible.  That is my favorite part of all.

This year I’ve been discovering the pleasures of elsaina.  That is the name in Arabic for this big fuzzy leaf that grows wild in these parts – the translation of its Hebrew name is Jerusalem sage – and according to my edible wild plant teacher’s book, it is indeed a member of the sage family.  But the Arabic name in inspired by its look and feel – “tongue”. 

In local Arab cooking, elsaina is used in the same way as grape leaves.  In winter, when grape leaves were once not available (and today cost 30 NIS/kilo), elsaina was/is the leaf of choice for stuffing.   

Ron came home the other night with a bag full of about two dozen elsaina leaves – a gift from our dear friend Salim Saadi – another of my esteemed edible wild plant teachers.  He’d picked them in the avocado grove where he works as a watchman. Well into his 80s, Salim spends peaceful days in the shade of the avocados, gathering from the bounty growing around them. 

After a quick consultation call to my friend Balkees, the reliable expert on cooking with local foods, I poured boiling water over the leaves and after letting them sit for a few minutes, set each leaf out and cut away its tough stem and spine, leaving the top intact.  

        

I made a filling of bulgar, sautéed onions, tomato paste, pine nuts, cinnamon, cayenne and black pepper and put a tablespoon full at the tip of each leaf.  The beauty of the reddish-gold filling set against the deep green of the elsaina took my breath away. I rolled each one, then gave it a squeeze just like I’d seen Balkees do – then arranged them in a pot, on top of a layer of sliced onions.  When all the leaves were done, I poured enough broth over the top to cover everything and then some – submerged a plate on top of it all, and let it cook for about 40 minutes. 

Elsaina leaves are softer than grape leaves and not at all sour – they have a delicate woodsy flavor that I can’t get enough of.  Ron said they were the best stuffed leaves he’d ever had and I surely agree. 

 

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