In Dandelion & Quince, author Michelle McKenzie explores the uses of some non-standard herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Here, she tells The Splendid Table's Noelle Carter about her tomatillo-inspired green fish stew and the unexpectedly sweet use she's found for fig leaves.
Noelle Carter: In your book, you have an incredible chapter on fig leaves. I'm used to eating figs, but who knew you could actually use the leaves? Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Michelle McKenzie: Fig leaves are often used to wrap cheeses. Some people cook fish in them. If you rub a fig leaf between your fingers, you'll get this amazing aroma of coconut, peat, vanilla, and green walnut. They impart that to the fish and the cheese.
A few years ago I started buying a lot of them and playing around with them, because I was addicted to this fragrance. I dried some and put them into spice blends. I tried smoking some, and I really loved how the smoke changed the quality. They kept some of that mint and sweetness and vanilla, but the smoke made them a little bit earthy. When I'm smoking fig leaves, I want to stand in my kitchen for hours until the smell dissipates. I have been grinding those smoked fig leaves up and powdering them with sugar, then making desserts out of them. They're just phenomenal.
NC: Who would have thought of fig leaves and desserts?
MM: I know. I have a recipe for panna cotta in the book, plus one for smoked fig leaf cookies, which is my favorite shortbread recipe. It's super easy to make, and those cookies stay good for a long time.
NC: I can imagine the fragrance of the cookies with the smoked fig leaves. One of the other ingredients that I'm finding in the markets right now is tomatillos. You have a whole section on tomatillos -- using them raw, using them cooked. You also have this incredible recipe for green fish stew. How did you come up with it and what was the inspiration?
MM: When people think of green sauces, they think of a salsa verde or a pesto. Green sauces are also a great way to use up odds and ends of green onion tops and half a bunch of cilantro, and I had these tomatillos. I had made tomatillo jam and measured everything out for that recipe, but I had a few left over. I blanched them and blitzed them up in a blender like I was starting a salsa. Then I took it a step further and thought of a restaurant in San Francisco that has a green fish stew. I thought this sauce, thinned out with a bit of stock that's been reduced, would be phenomenal with fish. It's actually one of my favorite recipes in the book.
After the photo shoot, I had friends over and we all shared this massive pot of tomatillo stew with tortillas and a simple salad with radish, and it was wonderful.
NC: It looks so vibrant and colorful. The photos in the book are incredible, and the green fish stew is another one that I can't wait to go home and try.
MM: It's my favorite tomatillo recipe, by far.