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Hoja Santa

Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page F03

Hoja santa (oh-hah SAHN-ta) leaves

A heart-shaped, dinner plate-sized leaf is making its way onto restaurant tables in downtown Washington.

The large, tender leaf of the hoja santa plant, native to Mexico, is traditionally used as a wrapper, much as one might use a corn husk or a banana leaf. It imparts a subtle though curious flavor that is easily discerned but not so easily described.

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At Cashion's Eat Place in Adams-Morgan, chef John Manolatos says it has a eucalyptus-like tang. He uses the leaves as a buffer from the flames for grilled shrimp or as a moisture-trapping component for chunks of beef shoulder braised with bananas, jicama, corn and red chilis.

Chef Mark Hellyar of Restaurant Nora describes the hoja santa effect as more aromatic than flavorful. In his halibut wrapped in hoja santa leaves served with a Veracruz sauce, though, he does detect a slight hit of tarragon. Or was that a basil burn?

And at Mendocino Grille, the leaves make a fashion statement as a "lay down" on the cheese plate. (Chef Drew Trautman deems it to be a hint of mint.)

The beguiling leaves are are grown locally by Michael Pappas, owner of Eco Farms in Lanham. Pappas describes the flavor as a subtle sassafrass smack and prefers to wrap sea scallops in the leaves prior to steaming.

The leaves are available for $1.50 at Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op (201 Ethan Allen Ave., Takoma Park; call 301-891-2667).

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