Holy Mother, what a leaf! Mexico is a land of legends and the story of how Hoja Santa, or Holy Leaf, got its name is among the most charming. When the Virgin Mary needed a place to dry the diapers of baby Jesus; what better spot than atop a Hoja Santa plant, which would not only serve as a clothesline, but also impart a very pleasant aroma. Dear friend, did you know that tortillas aren’t the only thing Mexican cooks use to wrap food? These large, leathery leaves grow as large as a platter and work almost as well. X-mak-ulam (Maya), Hoja santa, Piper Auritum is a tropical looking plant with large, velvety, heart shaped leaves. Small white spikes of flowers appear in the summer. It is a perennial which can grow to 10 ft so give it lots of room. Piper Auritum grows well in southern and eastern Mexico and in the warmest states of the United States. Hoja Santa is very often confused with Piper Methysticum (Kava-Kava), and probably has some similar effects.
This attractive plant holds its large leaves horizontally around one or more thick central stalks. The leaves are big enough to hold small wrapped packets enclosing pieces of food. But in addition to being used as wrappers these are often pureed with other ingredients in sauces. Because they are tough, hoja Santa leaves are not good in salads. They need to be cooked, but the good news is, they keep their flavor and remain green when heated. The brittle dried leaves can be used for the latter purpose but are too fragile for wrappers. A famous recipe from the Veracruz province (where the spice is particularly popular) is Pescado en Hoja Santa; fish wrapped in pepper leaves, baked and served with a spicy tomato sauce.
In the United States, the FDA has been less kind. Because, like sassafras, it contains the essential oil safrole, which is known to be carcinogenic in animals, some sources consider it to be toxic. Dangerous or not, Hoja Santa is used extensively in the cooking of Mexico, particularly in salsas, stews, and tamales. It is a bit difficult to find in the United States, unless you grow your own. You probably won’t find it in your local grocery store chain. If you live near a Latin community, the local “mercados” (markets) may have some. I have heard that, the beguiling leaves are grown locally by Michael Pappas, owner of Eco Farms in Lanham. American cheesemaker Paula Lambert uses it for “Hoja santa cheese”, the goat’s milk cheese wrapped with the hoja santa leaves and impregnated with its flavor.
4 small hoja Santa leaves, washed and drained well
1 pound soft, mild goat cheese, such as Montrachet, crumbled.
Soak in very hot water for 2 minutes to soften or blanch Hoja Santa leaves until they are soft (the time will depend on -fresh young leaves, 1 minute) To stuff the leaves, start with your largest leaves. Take a leaf and carefully spread it on a flat plate or pan with the veins facing upward to you (leaf shiny side down). Place approximately 1 to 2 tablespoons of the Goat cheese in each leaf (the amount of cheese will depend on the size of the leaves). Fold the stem end of the leaf over the filling, then fold both sides toward the middle. Squeeze lightly in the palm of your hand to secure the rolls. Serve over the the greens as a warm or cold first course with yogurt or as a hors d’oeuvre with the spiced vinaigrette.
3/4 cup vinegar
2 allspice berries
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup spiced rum
1 teaspoon salt
Combine vinegar, allspice berries and shallots in small saucepan. Bring to scald. Remove from heat; let steep 25 minutes. Combine vinegar mixture with remaining ingredients and mix well. Chill and serve over seasonal greens.