When I first saw a bag of big, strange leaves in my CSA box, I didn't even know what I was looking at. Thankfully, the newsletter helpfully explained that these were piper betel leaves. They looked like they really wanted to be wrapped around something, and eventually my mind got to thinking about the Vietnamese dish called bò lá lốt, or grilled beef wrapped in leaves.
Lo and behold, the traditional wrapper for the dish would appear to be none other than betel leaves! I looked up a few different iterations of the recipe, all of which appeared to be variations on the same theme, and improvised some. For a pound of ground beef, I added about 2 tbsp. of finely chopped lemongrass, 2 tbsp. chopped green onion, a clove of finely chopped garlic, a couple tsp. of curry powder, a couple glugs of fish sauce, a spoonful of sugar, a pinch of salt, a grinding of black pepper, and mixed well with my hands. I laid out the leaves and added a torpedo-shaped spoonful to the upper third of the leaf and rolled it backwards on itself. My basic assembly guide can be found here.
If the leaves still have the stem attached you can use that as a sort of toothpick to hold the roll together, otherwise an actual toothpick will work (as will a longer skewer, which you can stick through several at once). Then just brush with a little oil and grill them in a hot grill pan:
The leaves, which start off feeling somewhat waxy, quickly soften and then get slightly crispy. After about 3-4 minutes, turn or roll them to cook the other side. Conveniently, once the leaves are wilted and cooked all over, the meat inside will also be done. I only got five leaves in my box, not nearly enough for a pound of beef, but I did have another leafy green hanging around. I trimmed off the leaves of some of the white chard and quickly blanched them for a minute or two in boiling water, then dried them on a paper towel. I wrapped the rest of the beef in the chard leaves and gave them the same treatment:
I also whipped up a quick nước chấm to use as a dipping sauce. There seem to be many different schools of thought on the proportion of ingredients in a nước chấm. I used the juice of two limes, one thinly sliced chile pepper, one clove of minced garlic, about a tsp. of sugar, about 2 tbsp. hot water, a squirt of sriracha chile sauce, and about 1/4 cup of fish sauce. It wasn't bad but it could have used more tweaking if I wasn't ready to eat, right then and now.
The betel leaf wrappers had a wonderful frilly, slightly crispy texture and an interesting, subtly smoky flavor. The chard had a more substantial bite, but took nicely to grilling and had a slightly sweeter flavor. I liked the filling, which when cooked has a nice firm, but not tough, texture with brightness from the lemongrass and scallion.
The betel leaves seem like they could come in handy for a number of other uses. I will no longer feel the urge to panic when I see them in my CSA share. In fact, I'll be looking for more in the extras box.