Thursday, December 17, 2009

CSA Week 3 - roll 'em if you got 'em

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.


  1. You should have squeezed them to get betel juice.
    Seriously, is this the same plant as a betelnut? You know, those nicotine-style addictive pods they chew in Asia that make their teeth look all bloody and rotten then spit the red juice on the sidewalk. That could really be worth experimenting with.

  2. According to almighty Wikipedia, "betel nut" is a misnomer and actually refers to the tradition of chewing betel leaves together with areca nuts. And apparently, "areca nuts" are indeed the nuts of the areca palms that are ubiquitous throughout South Florida.

    So you've got everything you need right here.

  3. Guys,
    The common areca palm in the South Florida landscape is NOT the areca species that produces the betel nut.
    The nut of the areca catechu palm is combined with the piper betel leaf and lime (as in the chemical, not the fruit) to make the quid which, when chewed, reacts to release the stimulant drug from the palm nut. You need BOTH plant products TOGETHER!

  4. Thanks for the clarification. I will hold off on chewing the nuts from my backyard palm trees.

  5. There was betel leaf in this week's CSA box again. Did you pillage the extras box for more? Looking forward to your next recipe with the leaves. I just chop one up and drop it into soup or stir fry, nothing too daring...

  6. I was hoping to find more betel leaves in the extras box but there was only a large selection of canistels! I'd like to try something different, but just happen to have all the fixins available for the beef wrapped in leaves like I did last time, so not sure if this time we'll do something new or not.

  7. I must try the Asian style use of the betel leaf with some beef. I was so not digging the flavor with fish! Boo! I will conquer that nasty betel leaf yet!!! Thanks F for a great idea.