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 recently 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 that 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 (Chez Panisse apparently made it once, calling it “herb jam.” Gotta love marketing!) that is spread hot on crusty bread. Saveur has a version of this recipe.
In the Piedmont region of Italy, it 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 the Cretan horta mix, 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, where 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.
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 dolma, which the Greeks call dolmades, most of us call stuffed grape leaves and which 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 dolma. 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; these are best for a mixed green saute 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. For those of you who live in Sacramento, you will know why: It 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 anyplace 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. Do we really want to pick mallow alongside a highway? Pesticides are an issue, but there is enough mallow growing far back from the side of the road to avoid the sprayers. The other issue is exhaust.
I seem to remember reading that plants growing near highways can pick up some heavy metals from the exhaust — anyone whose 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 OK 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.
Once we had the mallow home, I preserved the leaves for stuffing. You do this the same way you would preserve a grape leaf: Boil in salty water for 1-2 minutes, shock in an ice water bath, let drip dry for a while, then roll up sideways and tie with string.
To preserve them, mix 1/4 cup of lemon juice, a splash of vinegar and a quart of water with 1-2 tablespoons salt and boil it. Stuff the wrapped leaves into a Mason jar and pour the hot mixture over them. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes. Or keep 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. The mallow-as-wrapper is more tender than a grape leaf, so it has a tendency to tear easier. But it added 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. 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 be might worth picking. But don’t wait too long…
STUFFED MALLOW or GRAPE LEAVES
After reading any number of recipes for stuffed grape leaves, variously known as dolmas or dolmades depending on which side of the Aegean you live on, I came to the conclusion that really anything goes when it comes to fillings. This particular filling came together from some random things I had in my house at the time. Onion, some mushrooms, and a batch of arugula pesto I’d made a few days before. I mixed this with half-cooked short-grain rice and went to town. The use of short- or medium-grain rice is vital — if you are using rice. Long-grain rice tastes terrible cold.
As for the arugula pesto and hedgehog mushrooms, I know they are pretty esoteric, but this recipe would be just fine with regular pesto and any nice mushroom, chopped fine. Go for wild ones if you can get them, but even the little brown cremini mushrooms would be good. And you can buy hedgehogs and other wild mushrooms online through Earthy Delights.
To fold the dolmas, you lay the leaf smooth side down, bottom facing you. Put about a tablespoon of filling in a little log alongside the bottom, stretching from side to side toward the leaf edges. leave at least a half-inch of space on either edge. Fold up from the bottom once, then fold over the sides and roll up. It takes some practice, as you will learn how much tension you can put on the dolma before the leaf rips.
Makes about 20 dolmas
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 60 minutes
- 1 cup short or medium-grain rice
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 pound hedgehog or other mushrooms, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup pesto
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Grape or mallow leaves
- Get a large frying pan hot over high heat. Add the mushrooms and shake the pan often until they release their water. When most of the water is gone, add the onion and the olive oil and a little salt. Toss to combine.
- Saute this over high heat until the onion begins to color, then add the rice. Toss to combine.
- Toast for a minute, then add 1 cup of water and a little salt. Turn the heat to medium and let the water cook away.
- When it is absorbed, turn off the heat and let the rice cool.
- Add the pesto and toss to combine. You can add a little olive oil if you have a dryish pesto.
- Grape and mallow leaves come in different sizes, so adjust the amount of filling as needed when you fill them. It should always be about a tablespoon, though.
- Line up your dolmas seam side down on a perforated vegetable steam insert, Chinese steamer or even on the bottom of a pan. Nestle them in snug against each other, and it is OK to stack them up to three levels high.
- Mallow leaves don’t need to be weighed down, but grape leaves benefit from it. Lay a plate over the dolmas when you put them in to the pot you are about to steam them in. I use a large stockpot.
- Put in enough water to come up just under the level of the dolmas, cover and bring to a boil. Steam gently for 40 minutes to an hour — why the difference? Depends on how fresh your rice is, and how much water it soaked up initially. Better to err on the long side than the short, as no one likes crunchy rice…
- Serve warm or at room temperature. Dolmas will keep for a week in the fridge.