Heart-shaped leaves

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I’ve just realized that two of my favorite leaves in the world are both heart-shaped.

Hierba santa in Oaxaca is one of the most delicious leaves I’ve ever tasted.  It tastes a little like anise, a little like mint, with an incredible strong and calming fragrance.  When it’s wrapped around quesillo, Oaxacan string cheese, and then heated in a pan…what I would do to eat that again at La Biznaga!

The other one is 깻잎, kkaenip, which is often translated as perilla or wild sesame, and sometimes as shiso, though to me, “shiso” describes a Japanese variety, which has a very distinct and different flavor.  It’s in the mint family, but it doesn’t really smell like mint.  It comes on strong like fennel, but it’s not quite like fennel either.  The flavor just doesn’t exist in English.

As exotic as it sounds, it’s very common in Korean cooking.  You’ll see kkaenip in the basket of greens at most Korean barbecue restaurants.  I like to layer a piece on top of lettuce before wrapping it all around my grilled beef or pork.  My sister loves it as another layer between the rice and the seaweed in kimbap or Korean rice rolls.  You can slice it up and throw it in sautéed rice cakes.  And you can stuff it with seasoned meat and fry it all up coated in flour and eggs.  That is a particularly delicious way to eat it.

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

Bibimbap vegetables waiting for the barley rice

So when I decided to have a special vegetarian Korean Sunday dinner, I wanted to do something with kkaenip.  In general, I wanted to give my vegetarian friends a taste of something they’d likely never had before.  Since I couldn’t wow them with pork belly or glazed spare ribs, I wanted to feed them crazy roots and funny greens, the kind of stuff that Koreans love to gather from the mountains that cover the country.  So many Korean foods, when translated into English, sound like they would only belong at a store for health nuts and hippies—fern bracken, burdock root, crown daisies.  But in Korean, they’re as ordinary as “spinach.”

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

Acorn jelly tosed with sesame seeds and roasted seaweed.

I made sure to have a vegetable bibimbap, or mixed rice, that was filled with burdock roots sautéed and glazed in syrup and soy sauce, as well as fern bracken, mung bean sprouts, bean sprouts, and tiny pin-headed 팽이버섯, paengi-beoseot, or enoki mushrooms.  I made acorn jelly from acorn powder, which somehow has mysterious gelatinous powers, and tossed it with roasted seaweed, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.  I stuffed tofu with portabella mushrooms and green onions, and then braised them in soy sauce with a dash of red pepper flakes.  The vegetarian seaweed soup was good, though now I wish I’d added more sesame oil to make up for the lack of beef stock.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

Fried tofu stuffed with portabella mushrooms, waiting for their soy-sauce braising bath.

But I was particularly proud of the vegetarian kkaenip-jeon, or stuffed perilla leaf pancakes.  The stuffed tofu and the kkaenip-jeon were the only dishes I invented, my special meatless versions.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to have come up with these ideas, but last night was certainly the first time I’d tasted them.

I started with the basic kkaenip-jeon recipe.  Instead of ground beef, I took firm tofu, crumbled it and strained it in a cheesecloth.  I added a ton of chives, some green onions, and chopped zucchini.  I seasoned it more or less the way I would have seasoned beef, with soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic.  I stuffed each leaf as I would with meat, dredged them in flavor, and dipped them in egg before frying them in a enameled cast-iron pan.

I was so anxious to taste the first one and make sure it tasted okay, I burnt my tongue.  But it was good!  They weren’t as juicy as the beefy ones had been, but the contrast between the almost crisp, leafy exterior and the smooth tofu filling was great.  The relative mildness of the vegetarian version meant that it went better with the vinegar-spiked soy sauce I’d put out for dipping.  I’d like to try it again one day and replace the zucchini with shitake mushrooms, but given the mushrooms in the stuffed tofu, I was glad to have something with such a clean, green flavor on the table.  It felt like spring…with hearts.

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As always, this is a draft recipe.  Everything in the cookbook will be much better. Feel free to play around with the proportions.  I think it’s really important in Korean cooking to be sure about your own tastes and season boldly and accordingly.

깻잎전
Stuffed perilla leaves
Kkaenip-jeon

Meat filling
8 oz. of ground beef
1.5 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
freshly ground pepper

Vegetarian filling
1 package firm tofu, crumbled and drained
½ cup chopped zucchini
½ cup chopped Asian chives
¼ cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper

20 fresh and tender kkaenip leaves
2 eggs, beaten, with pinch of salt
½ cup of flour

  1. If you’re making the meat version, season the ground beef with the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, green onion, and pepper.  Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes.
  2. If you’re making the vegetarian version, crumble the tofu and then squeeze thoroughly in cheesecloth.  You can also just squeeze the water out of the tofu with your hands and let it drain in a strainer or colander, though it’s worth getting a bit of thin cloth and squeezing the tofu juice out that way.  Combine all the ingredients and mix thoroughly.  The flavors will meld better if you mix it with your hand rather than a spoon.
  3. Wash and dry the kkaenip leaves.  Each leaf is heart-shaped and about the size of the palm of your hand.  “Stuff” each leaf by putting about one to two teaspoons of filling on one side of the “heart” and then folding it over.  Press the two halves of the leaf firmly together.  Place the stuffed kkaenip leaves on a plate and set aside.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium-low heat.
  5. Dredge each stuffed leaf in the flour and then coat it in beaten egg.  Be sure to get egg on as much of the leaf as possible.
  6. Fry the battered leaves in batches in the pan, about 2-3 minutes on each side, until golden in color.  Don’t crowd the pan, and add more oil as necessary between batches.  Set the cooked perilla leaves on paper towels to soak up some of the oil.
  7. Like all “jeon,” these pan-fried kkaenip leaves can be served at room temperature but they’re incredible when they’re hot.  You can make them ahead of time, and then reheat them in an oven set at 300 degrees for five minutes or reheat them in a pan.  Do not microwave them unless you like your jeon soggy.
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9 Responses to “Heart-shaped leaves”

  1. Don Cuevas Says:

    When we bough a gas heater in Mexico, the instructions mentioned “la perilla”, which is apparently a knob, a swith or a handle.

    Back on topic: I really like fish cooked in hojas de hierba santa, sometimes called “acuyo”.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  2. Grace Says:

    Yum, fish cooked in hojas de hierba santa! Que sabroso!

  3. Naoko Yoshioka Says:

    This looks Delicious, I have to try this recipe. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Grace Says:

    Thanks! And I will definitely try some of your mocktails. I have a pregnant friend who would definitely appreciate one!

  5. Diane Says:

    looks terrific

  6. Diane Says:

    sorry this was michael

  7. Natalie Says:

    How did you go about the stuffed tofu? Did you cook the mushrooms first before stuffing the tofu? Did you chill the tofu (firm, silken, pre baked?)

    Looks lovely!

  8. Grace Says:

    I did cook the mushrooms first before stuffing them. I took firm tofu, cut them into blocks, and pan-fried them so they’d be sturdier. Then I stuffed them. You can’t see the final effect, but I also then braised the stuffed tofu in a soy sauce-based liquid.

  9. Cedric Duran Says:

    You can certainly see your enthusiasm within the work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. Always go after your heart.

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