Cooking With Leaves

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

Before fine china or paper plates, there were leaves. Edible leaves have long been used as containers and wrappers for sweet and savory fillings. Grape leaves are very Mediterranean, and green cabbage, kale, and romaine leaves are a culinary tradition in Europe. Banana, lotus, and even tobacco leaves are a familiar wrapper in Asia, while taro leaves are instrumental in Hawaiian cuisine.

Edible leaves make a wonderful insulator for cooking food. Leaves seal in moisture and nutrients, yielding hot, flavorful dishes. Some leaves, such as cabbage, kale, romaine, and lotus leaves, influence the flavor of the food cooking in them, while others, such as banana leaves, remain neutral.

While we say ‘edible,’ some leaves have a bit too much fiber to be enjoyable. Cabbage, kale, romaine, grape, and spinach leaves are entirely edible, and while banana or lotus leaves won’t hurt you, they are pretty tough to try to chew through.

International Leaves

Dolmathes, stuffed grape leaves, are a popular Greek and Mediterranean meze (appetizer); they can be purchased (canned or refrigerated) already prepared or made at home. To make your own Dolmathes, buy prepared grape leaves and stuff with chopped vegan ‘ground round’ and/or cooked rice seasoned with chopped onions, pine nuts, tomato paste, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Garnish with lemon wedges or a lemony tomato sauce. Grape leaves are very rarely sold fresh, so look for them packaged in brine (in the international section of your market) or frozen (in gourmet shops).

If you had an Eastern European grandma, you probably have eaten your share of rolled or stuffed cabbage leaves. If Grandma came from Southeast Asia, you probably have had a spring roll using lettuce leaves as the wrapper. Every grandma in every country seems to have a favorite ‘leaf’ recipe.

Banana leaves are very popular in Asian cooking. Fresh young leaves of the Cavendish banana are sold in rolled bundles. Scope out the fresh produce or frozen section of Asian markets for banana leaves, or look for these and many other varieties online at sites, such as

If you can find fresh or frozen banana leaves, you’ll want to cut them with a knife or clean scissors to the size that you want to roll. No need to thaw frozen banana leaves for more than five minutes, or they will get soggy. After you cut the leaves, pour boiling water quickly over them, just enough to make them pliable. Once the leaves are cool, you are ready to roll—pun intended! If your banana leaves have a lot of tough veins, cut them out. If you’d like to bring out the flavor of banana leaves, you can hold them, fleetingly, over a hot flame from a stove burner or barbecue for several seconds. Roll or stuff banana leaves with your favorite rice pilaf, risotto, or potato mixture.

International Fillings

Prepare white or brown rice and mix with the following before rolling up your leaves:

Mediterraneanarugula leaves, tabbouleh, grilled seitan, and roasted red peppers
Italianmushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, and vegan soy mozzarella
Asiangrilled eggplant basted with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil
Americandiced vegan bacon strips, lettuce, tomatoes, and chopped parsley
Breakfastbananas, lowfat granola, and vegan soy yogurt
Dessertapple slices sautéed with maple syrup, lemon juice, nonhydrogenated vegan margarine, and rum along with a sprinkle of cinnamon

Lotus leaves are usually sold in Asian markets. Dried leaves can be softened in warm water. Lotus leaves make great wrappers for savory or sweet rice or minced vegetable and tofu combinations. However, they are generally too fibrous to eat.

Dried seaweed or nori are edible leaves used in Japanese and Korean cooking. Some varieties of ever-popular sushi are wrapped in nori, as are savory rice bundles. Seasoned nori can be found in Japanese and Korean markets and can be eaten on its own as a snack.

Did you know that the traditional Hawaiian luau is intimately intertwined with leaf cookery? Before outside culinary influences arrived, Hawaiian cuisine was similar to other foods in the South Pacific, especially those of Tahiti and Samoa. The earliest Hawaiian settlers arrived in canoes with karo (taro), breadfruit, coconuts, sweet potatoes, bananas, and more than 30 kinds of seaweed. Ancient Hawaiian food was eaten raw or wrapped in karo leaves, seasoned with coconut, and cooked.

The name ‘luau’ comes from a dish made from the young leaves of the karo plant, which were cooked with sweet potatoes in coconut milk. The actual leaves, members of the agave family, are also called ti leaves. The leaves are removed before the food is eaten. Dried ti leaves, which can be found in some Polynesian markets, must be soaked to soften before using. Ti leaves are also available at

Preparing the Leaves

The secret to cooking with leaves is to soften the leaves sufficiently so they are pliable and can be rolled. However, they shouldn’t be so soft that they don’t hold up to cooking. Cabbage leaves, kale, and Swiss chard can be frozen or steamed to achieve roll-ability. Banana, lotus, and ti leaves must be soaked to become roll-able.

Rolled, filled leaves can be cooked in stovetop steamers, requiring little attention. If you prefer to steam them in the oven, add enough sauce or broth to keep them covered while cooking, or the leaves will become dry and the filling will not cook evenly. If you feel the need to fasten your rolled leaves, use uncoated kitchen string or colored toothpicks. Just be certain to remove the toothpicks prior to service, so your guests don’t chomp down on one!

Recipe Index


(Makes 12 rolls)

Serve these as a hot or cold appetizer or as an entree, accompanied by herb-roasted vegetables and a Greek salad.

    1 pound (approximately 2 cups) chopped extra firm tofu
    1/2 cup finely chopped onions
    1/2 cup uncooked white rice
    2 teaspoons black pepper
    1 Tablespoon chopped fresh mint
    1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
    2 Tablespoons silken tofu
    1 cup canned tomatoes, not drained
    1/2 teaspoon fresh dill
    1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
    One 16-ounce jar grapevine leaves
    2 cups vegetable broth
    1 Tablespoon nonhydrogenated vegan margarine

In a large bowl, combine extra firm tofu, onions, rice, pepper, mint, parsley, silken tofu, tomatoes, dill, and oregano. Mix well.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Wash the leaves carefully and remove the brine. Put any broken leaves into the bottom of a deep, non-stick oven dish. Put a heaping teaspoon of the mixture in the center of each whole leaf. Fold the edges over and roll tightly toward the point of the leaf. Pour broth over rolls and dot with margarine.

Cover and bake for 40 minutes or until leaves and rice are tender.

Total calories per roll: 105    Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 14 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 1,172 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Rolled Caesar Salad

(Makes 6 rolls)

This Italian-influenced salad is rolled for convenience.

1 head romaine lettuce, cleaned and chopped into bite-size pieces


    2 cloves garlic, minced
    3 Tablespoons finely diced almonds
    2 Tablespoons nutritional yeast
    2 Tablespoons prepared mustard
    2 teaspoons ground oregano
    1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
    2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
    2 Tablespoons cold water
    1 teaspoon vinegar


6-8 romaine leaves, stemmed (with most of hard center core removed)

Place chopped romaine in a medium nonreactive bowl and chill.

Place dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor and combine until smooth.

Toss lettuce pieces with dressing and allow to chill for at least 30 minutes. When ready to serve, place a small amount of salad on the end of each leaf and roll up.

Total calories per roll: 55    Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 134 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Spanish-Influenced Stuffed Cabbage

(Makes 10 rolls)

A slight variation on traditional stuffed cabbage, with just a little more ‘heat.’

1 head cabbage, leaves cleaned

Filling Mixture

    1½ pounds vegan ‘ground round,’ chopped Tofurky, or finely diced extra firm tofu
    1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
    2 Tablespoons chopped onions
    2 Tablespoons silken tofu
    2 teaspoons black pepper


    2 cups prepared tomato sauce
    1/2 cup chopped canned tomatoes, not drained
    2 Tablespoons lemon juice
    2 Tablespoons sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
    2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
    1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
    1/2 cup sliced pimento-stuffed green olives

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Steam cabbage for 5 minutes or more until tender. Drain and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine filling ingredients and mix well. Place a small amount of filling mixture on each leaf. Roll and place in a 2½- or 3-quart shallow baking dish.

In a small pot, combine sauce ingredients and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Pour over rolls. Bake, covered, for 1 hour or until leaves are tender.

Note: Kale or Swiss chard leaves would work well in this recipe.

Total calories per roll: 151    Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 426 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Lettuce Stuffed with Garlic and White Beans

(Makes 6 rolls)

This Mediterranean combination works well as a filling for a lettuce leaf roll-up.

    1 whole head of unpeeled garlic (about 10 cloves)
    Vegetable spray oil
    1½ cups cooked white beans, mashed
    2/3 cup prepared hummus
    1/4 cup shredded radishes
    1-2 Tablespoons water or lemon juice, as needed
    1/4 cup alfalfa sprouts
    1/8 cup chopped cilantro
    6 iceberg lettuce leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut off top one-third of garlic, leaving the bulb whole. Spray with vegetable oil, wrap in foil, and bake until very tender, approximately 40 minutes. Allow to cool.

In a medium bowl, mix beans, hummus, and radishes until well blended. Squeeze garlic pulp from bulb into mixture and stir until well combined. If the mixture is too thick, thin with water or lemon juice. Add sprouts and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

When ready to serve, place a small amount of filling at the end of each lettuce leaf. Roll tightly and serve immediately, or skewer with a toothpick to keep rolls together until ready to serve.

Total calories per roll: 120    Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 109 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Romanian Stuffed Cabbage

(Makes approximately 20 stuffed cabbage rolls, depending on the number of leaves in each head of cabbage)

We won’t argue whether this recipe is of Russian, Romanian, or other Eastern European descent. It is a traditional stuffed cabbage recipe from the ‘old country.’ It does take some time to prepare, so make a big batch and freeze some for later. You can also make miniature cabbage rollies with spinach leaves; lightly steamed, cooled Swiss chard leaves or kale can be used as well.

2 large heads of cabbage, frozen, then defrosted*
1 cup sliced onions

Filling Mixture

    2 pounds vegan ‘ground round’ or chopped Tofurky (about 4½ cups)
    4 Tablespoons silken tofu
    1/4 cup dark brown sugar or vegan sweetener, such as palm or date sugar
    3 Tablespoons lemon juice
    1/2 cup cooked white rice (Start with 1/4 cup uncooked rice.)


    4 cups prepared tomato sauce
    1 cup water
    1/4 cup raisins
    1/2 cup dark brown sugar or vegan sweetener, such as palm or date sugar
    3 Tablespoons lemon juice


    1/2 cup torn cabbage leaves
    4 vegan ginger snap cookies or 1 Tablespoon crystallized ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Peel leaves from the cabbage heads, being careful not to tear them. Cut up smaller leaves and any torn leaves. Set aside 1/2 cup torn cabbage leaves for the topping. Place the remaining torn leaves in bottom of deep baking pan (approximately 5 quarts in size) with onions.

In a bowl, mix the ingredients of the filling together until well combined. Put a small amount of filling mixture on the end of each whole cabbage leaf. Roll leaves and place finished rolls over torn cabbage and onions in pan.

Combine all sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 3 minutes. Pour sauce over rolls. Top sauce with reserved cabbage leaves, spreading in a thin layer; top leaves with a single layer of ginger snaps. Bake in oven, covered, for 2 hours. Check often and baste with sauce. If cabbage leaves are not tender, continue to bake until they are.

Remove from oven, remove torn cabbage leaves and ginger from top, and serve hot.

*Note: Instead of blanching the cabbage so that you can separate the leaves, you can freeze the whole head of cabbage. When the cabbage is removed from the freezer, the leaves separate easily and are wilted enough to roll without cracking.

Total calories per roll: 183    Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 36 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 486 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Almost-Stuffed Cabbage

(Serves 6)

Don’t have the time to roll? This recipe can give you the flavor of Polish stuffed cabbage without the extra rolling time. Prepare and mix the ingredients ahead of time, and allow them to slow cook during the day.

    2 cups shredded green cabbage
    1 cup uncooked white rice
    1/2 cup water
    1/2 cup chopped onions
    1/4 cup chopped bell peppers
    2 cups chopped canned tomatoes, drained
    1 pound (2 cups) chopped Tofurky, seitan, or extra firm tofu
    1 cup tomato juice
    1 teaspoon black pepper
    1 teaspoon garlic powder
    1/4 cup raisins

Combine all ingredients in a Crock-Pot® slow cooker. Set on low. Allow to cook for 3-4 hours or until rice is cooked and cabbage is tender.

Note: Cooking time will vary depending on your equipment.

Total calories per serving: 293    Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 40 grams Protein: 32 grams
Sodium: 197 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Peanut-Veggie Rollies

(Makes 4 rolls)

The Thai-influenced filling for this recipe can be made one or two days ahead and refrigerated until used.

    8 ounces soft tofu
    2 cups peeled, deseeded, and thinly sliced cucumbers
    1/2 cup medium diced scallions
    1/4 cup shredded carrots
    1/2 cup thinly sliced radishes
    1 cup thinly sliced red bell peppers
    1 cup thinly sliced green bell peppers
    1/4 cup finely diced celery
    1/4 cup coarsely chopped peanuts
    1 Tablespoon lemon juice
    1 teaspoon black pepper
    4 large romaine leaves, stemmed (with most of hard center core removed)

Purée or mix tofu until it is the consistency of mayonnaise.

In a large bowl, mix cucumbers, green onions, carrots, radishes, peppers, and celery. Stir in tofu, peanuts, lemon juice, and black pepper.

When ready to serve, place a small amount of filling on one end of each romaine leaf. Roll loosely and serve immediately, or skewer with a toothpick to keep rolls together until ready to serve.

Note: You can make miniature rollies with spinach leaves; lightly steamed, cooled Swiss chard leaves or kale can also be used.

Total calories per roll: 120    Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 22 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Savory Rice in Lotus Leaves

(Makes 8 packets)

Note that the first step in this recipe must be done the night before.

This Southern Chinese recipe takes a lot of time and concentration to make, but it’s well worth

it. It can be served as a snack, for lunch, or as a light meal.

Because lotus leaves vary so much in size, eight packets may require anywhere from four to ten leaves. (Larger leaves can be split in half, while smaller leaves may need to be overlapped.)

The Previous Night

    8 large dried lotus leaves
    1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
    1 cup uncooked sticky or glutinous rice
    2 cups vegetable broth
    8 dried black or shiitake mushrooms

The night before, pour boiling water over the lotus leaves and let them soak for 1 hour. Rinse and squeeze them dry.

Mix the rice together in a large bowl. Wash the rice under cold running water, gently stirring and rubbing the grains between your fingers to loosen all the excess starch. Continue until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly. Mix the rice with the broth in a 2-quart saucepan, and soak overnight in the refrigerator. Cover the mushrooms with cold water and allow to soak, refrigerated, overnight.

The Day This Recipe is Served

    1/2 cup sliced vegan sausage, such as vegan pepperoni
    2 Tablespoons soy sauce
    1/2 teaspoon white pepper
    1 Tablespoon sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
    1 Tablespoon sesame oil
    2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
    2 Tablespoons dry vermouth or dry sherry*

The next day, set the saucepan of rice, uncovered, over high heat and bring to a boil. Stir just enough to loosen the rice grains. Reduce the heat to medium-high and boil until the liquid is absorbed, approximately 8-10 minutes. Put the vegan sausage on top of the rice and cover the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, but do not remove the cover. Let the rice stand for 10 minutes. Then, use a wet wooden spoon to transfer it to a large bowl. Set aside.

Squeeze the mushrooms dry and chop. In a small bowl combine the soy sauce, pepper, sugar, oil, ginger, and sherry. Mix into the rice. Add the mushrooms.

Fold a lotus leaf in half and place it on a cutting board. If the middle stem or edges are tough, trim and discard them. (If the leaves are small, you may need to overlap halves.) Divide the rice mixture into 8 portions and place one portion in the center of each leaf half. Fold the edges of one leaf half over the rice to make a 4-inch square packet. Tie with twine. Repeat with the remaining leaves and rice.

Arrange the packets in a single layer in a bamboo steaming basket or metal steamer. Steam the packets over medium-high heat for 20 minutes. Remove from the steamer and cut each packet across the top to expose its contents. Serve with small dishes of soy sauce for dipping.

*Note: The alcohol gives an authentic flavor, but you may omit it.

Total calories per packet: 209    Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 39 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 429 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE,
is VRG’s Food Service Advisor.