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
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.
So Holly, Josh, and I set out in search of mallow. We tried the American River Parkway, empty lots (mallow loves disturbed ground, not natural places), and any place we could think of that was not along one of the busiest highways in Northern California.
We came up empty. Damn. So we got onto Highway 50 and debated. Did we really want to pick mallow alongside a highway? Pesticides were an issue, but there was enough mallow growing far back from the side of the road to avoid the sprayers. The other issue was exhaust.
I seem to remember reading that plants growing near highways can pick up some heavy metals from the exhaust—anyone who's done research on this, please chime in! We were wary enough to cut only a little. Still, it was a weird environment for foraging. I think my advice would be that it is okay to use a little of these roadside plants, but don't make a habit of it. If you can find them off the beaten path, go for broke.
To preserve them, mix a quarter cup of lemon juice, a splash of vinegar, and a quart of water with one to two tablespoons of salt and boil the mixture. Stuff the wrapped leaves into mason jars and pour the hot mixture over them, then seal the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Or keep them in the fridge.
What to stuff the mallow with? Apparently the Turks use a combination of lamb and rice and serve these hot. I did not feel like doing this, though, so I started looking for dolmas recipes.
There are hundreds on the Web. Some "authentic," some modern. Basically the only thing I can tell you is that you can use whatever the hell you want. My only caveat to such license is that if you use rice, you must use short- or medium-grained rice. Long-grained rice sets up hard when you eat it cold; it's like eating twigs.
My dolma recipe consisted of an overly garlicky arugula pesto I was experimenting with, Carnaroli risotto rice, some sauteed hedgehog mushrooms I'd gotten from Earthy Delights, shallot, and olive oil.
Result? Not too shabby, if I say so. The mallow wrapper is more tender than a grape leaf, so it has a tendency to tear more easily. But it adds an almost meaty element—the leaf has a firm bite to it and seems far more substantial than it really is; it's hard to explain. And the filling rocked, especially cold. We ate these for lunch for a week.
Mallow grows all over the country, and it ought to be around now in side lots and disturbed places back East. It is fading here in California, with its leaves getting attacked by bugs and generally becoming tougher. If you find some mallow in a quiet place, it still might be worth picking. But don't wait too long ...
Recipe: Hank's Dolmas with Mushrooms and Pesto
To try more recipes using mallow, you can visit the following Web sites:
• Mallow with pasta and sheep's milk cheese, from Cafe Liz
• Israeli stuffed mallow leaves, from Israeli Kitchen
• Turkish wild greens, from Zen in the Kitchen
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