Holly A. Heyser
To try Hank's recipe for mallow or grape leaves stuffed with mushrooms and pesto, click here.
One of the fascinating things about the natural world is that no matter how knowledgeable you think you are, what you don't know will always far outweigh what you do. An offhanded comment by my friend Josh about mallow "being everywhere" was a telling example of this.
When Josh said this, I played it off like "Oh yeah, I know." But while I knew mallow was edible, and I was kinda sure it was what I grew up calling "cheeses" (the seeds look like little wheels of cheese), this was the sum total of my mallow knowledge.
Little did I know that the Eastern Mediterranean—Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt—loves this plant. There are many varieties, including a plant not in the malva genus called molokhia or Jew's Mallow. And oddly enough, I had just bought seeds for this plant. I'd seen molokhia in the Kitazawa catalog, and bought it because it loves hot weather and I am in need of heat-tolerant greens. Go figger.
Mallows are mostly a stewing green, as the leaves are a little fuzzy, which can be off-putting if you eat them raw in a salad (but hey, if you like eating fuzzy leaves, knock yourself out). Incidentally, the best source for mallow recipes, as well as a host of other unusual Mediterranean green things, is Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Grains and Greens. I found a lot of my information in this book.
As I did more research, I found that in Morocco, they cook the hell out of mallow and other greens to make a green sludge that is spread hot on crusty bread. (Chez Panisse apparently made it once, calling it "herb jam." Gotta love marketing!) Saveur has a version of this recipe. In the Piedmont region of Italy, mallow is chopped and added to that pan-European dish, the pureed green-thing-potato-onion soup. I've seen scores of versions of this sort of soup, often with nettles. Here is my version, which uses borage. Mallow also is part of Cretan or Greek horta, which are random green things stewed with lots of olive oil and served with salt, pepper, and lemon. It is cooked similarly in Egypt (although they prefer the molokhia variety) and in the Levant.
It is in Turkey, however, that mallow comes into its own. I put out a query on an academic food listserv I am a member of (oh yeah, Hank's that kind of geek!) and got tons of responses from Turks swooning over this plant. I even got a response from a Turk living in Folsom, the next town over from me.
Holly A. Heyser
I'd actually met Fethiye, who writes Yogurt Land, when I first started my blog. She doesn't blog much anymore, but there are some good recipes on her site. Fethiye said Turks cook mallow like spinach, with sauteed onions, ground meat, and chopped carrots. Some cooks add tomato. "When cooked," she says, "serve with yogurt—just like most any other cooked green dishes."
Several other Turks said they use large mallow leaves as wrappers for dolmas, which the Greeks call dolmades, most of us call stuffed grape leaves, and I call massively addicting. I've eaten whole cans at one sitting.
So I set out looking for these mallow plants, because I love me some dolmas. As I typically do, I started by looking in my backyard, where I found a bunch of mallows growing—but they are the variety with smallish leaves, and these are best for a mixed green sauté or stew. What I wanted was the gigantic mallow leaves I'd heard were used to make dolmas in Turkey.
Josh wanted to go foraging for them, too, and we immediately decided this would be the easiest foraging trip ever. Those of you who live in Sacramento will know why: the plant grows EVERYWHERE along Highway 50. Giant, four-foot monsters with huge wide leaves.