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Features of Banana Leaves
The huge leaves of the banana plant are used in cooking and cultures all around the world. The deep roots of the Japanese banana plant manage to stay alive below the frost line, allowing the plant to live in cold climates. After each winter season the tree grows to full size again, an astonishing 10-15 feet by the end of the summer, with the leaves reaching up to 6 feet long and 18 inches wide. For more information on the hardy Japanese banana plant see our article.

Banana leaves are used around the world to wrap up meals and steam them inside the leaves. They are often used to steam fish with other veggies or spices, and often used to make different types of meat and veggie stuffed doughy meals. Mexican Tamales, South American Pasteles, Indian Idlis, Filipino Bibingka, and many more recipes use banana leaves.

Health Benefits of Banana Leaves
Banana leaves contain antioxidants found in many plants and green tea called polyphenols. So cooking your food in this manner infuses your meal with additional antioxidants, as well as imparting flavor.

Food cooked in banana leaves
(Photo By: Dr d12 / Wikimedia Commons)

Tamales Wrapped in Banana Leaves
Tamales wrapped in banana or plantain leaves is common cuisine in Mexico and Central America. It can be a very long and involved process, so it is often a social event where several dozens are made at a time. The vegetarian filling can be substituted with pulled pork, shredded chicken, chorizo or carnitas. This recipe makes about 12 tamales, but you can easily scale it up and freeze the extras, as tamales freeze well.

1 lb fresh hardy Japanese banana leaves

2 lbs vegetarian or non-vegetarian prepared masa

Chile Sauce:
3 pablano chiles
1 medium garlic clove
1/4 tsp ground clove
Ground pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Vegetable Filling:
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 large carrot
1/2 red onion
4 medium garlic cloves
2 zucchinis
2 plum tomatoes
1 cup spinach leaves
12 oz Pepper Jack cheese

To prepare Banana Leaves:
1. Cut away thick edges of leaves.
2. Cut and remove central stem and rinse if using fresh leaves.
3. If leaves are brittle, carefully hold over lit gas burner or hot pan for a few seconds, until softened.
4. Dry leaves with towel or paper towels.
5. Cut leaves into 12 (8 inch x 10 inch) rectangles.
6. Cut extra leaves for steaming.
7. Set aside.

To prepare Chile Sauce:
1. Heat large sauté pan over medium heat.
2.Make a slit down the side of each chile using sharp knife.
3. Use tongs to open and place chiles open-side down in hot pan. Press with metal spatula for 10 seconds.
4. Turn over and cook another 15 seconds, until softened.
5. Add chiles and 1 1/2 cups warm water to blender.
6. Peel and add garlic, clove, and salt and pepper to taste. Blend 1-2 minutes, until smooth.
7. Pour blended chile sauce into sauté pan.
8. Heat pan over medium heat. Bring sauce to a simmer.
9. Add olive oil. Simmer for 10 minutes.
10. Remove from heat and set aside.

To prepare Vegetable Filling:
1. Add olive oil to extra large sauté pan. Heat over high heat.
2. Peel and chop garlic and onion. Chop carrots, zucchini and tomatoes.
3. Add garlic, onions and carrots to hot oil. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently with wooden spoon.
4. Add tomatoes and zucchini. Sauté for a 2 minutes.
5. Add spinach leaves and salt to taste. Stir until wilted, about 1 minute.
6. Remove from heat.
7. Add 1/2 cup chile sauce to pan.
8. Set aside.
9. Cut cheese into strips 3 inches long and 1/2 inch wide.

To assemble Tamales:
1. Lay down cut banana leaf, lighter, smoother side up.
2. Place a 1/3 cup prepared masa in the center of leaf. Press down with palm or wide wooden spoon to lightly spread.
3. Add 3/4 teaspoon chili sauce over masa. Add cheese.
4. Add 1/3 cup sautéed vegetables.
5. Fold longer sides of banana leaf over, tucking one edge under the other. Fold shorter sides under tamale to make snug package.
6. Tie with kitchen string to secure.
7. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

To cook Tamales:
1. Place steamer rack or wire cooling rack in bottom of extra large stockpot with lid.
2. Add water to pot until it almost reaches but does not touch the rack.
3. Cover rack with extra banana leaves.
4. Place tamales on rack in single layer, then cover with layer of banana leaves.
5. Cover last layer of tamales with banana leaves. Cover pot with lid.
6. Heat over high heat to bring to boil. Reduce heat to a simmer.
7. Cook for 45-60 minutes.
8. Use tongs to remove tamales. Use knife to cut kitchen string.
9. Carefully unwrap tamales from banana leaf.
10. Enjoy.

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Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), also known as American black elderberry or common elderberry, is a shrub that can easily be found throughout North America. It’s known for its delicious, dark purple berries and lacy white flowers. Elderberries and elderflowers are famous for their culinary and medicinal uses. Edibility and culinary use Almost all parts of this plant are poisonous, except for its flowers and ripe berries. Elderflowers are delicate and fragrant with a slightly tart flavor. These cream-colored flowers are typically used as an edible garnish or to flavor desserts and beverages. Elderflowers can also be made into jelly or deep-fried to make fritters. Dried elderflowers can also be brewed to make medicinal herbal tea. Much like elderflowers, elderberries taste tangy and tart, although stronger. These dark purple berries should never be eaten raw as it might cause stomach aches. Elderberries are usually made into jam, marmalade, pastry filling, juice, wine, tincture, and syrup. Elderberry tincture and syrup are often used for medicinal remedy. Health benefits Elderberry is packed with important nutrients. Both the berries and flowers are rich in vitamin A, B, and C. The tiny berries even contain more vitamin C than oranges. They’re high in dietary fiber which can promote a healthy digestive system. Elderberries and elderflowers also contain a lot of antioxidants like anthocyanins, flavonols, and phenolic acids. This means they’re great for reducing oxidative stress in the body, preventing cancer, and reducing inflammations. Elderflowers and elderberries are often used to treat and prevent cold. They’re also great for alleviating cold symptoms, such as cough, nasal congestion, and fever. Elderberry is also said to be good for treating allergy and asthma symptoms. Its anti-inflammatory property also makes it great for alleviating pain, treating mouth and gum inflammation, reducing toothache, and treating digestive problems. Lastly, consuming elderberry can improve cardiovascular health as it helps lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels. Cultivation Elderberry is not very hard to cultivate. With some work and patience, you’ll be able to grow some elderberry shrubs in your own garden. While it loves moist, fertile, and well-drained soil, this plant can tolerate almost every type of soil. But, it can’t tolerate drought at all. So, be sure to water the plant regularly. Plant elderberry in a location with full sun for a better harvest. Before planting, prepare the soil by incorporating manure or compost. Plant elderberry bushes in the spring, after the last frost date has passed. Plant each plant 6” to 10” apart, make sure the roots are well-covered. Water them once or twice a week to ensure they don’t dry out. Get rid of surrounding weed regularly, especially when the shrubs are young. Let the shrubs grow wild for the first two years. Don’t prune them or harvest the flowers and berries. This way, they’ll grow nicely and produce a lot of berries. Then, starting from the third year, prune the shrubs each spring and remove all the dead areas. The berries will start to appear at the end of summer and they will ripen around mid-August to mid-September. Make sure to pick them before the birds finish them off. Cautions Common elderberry leaves, stems, and roots are poisonous. Ripe elderberries are generally safe, but unripe elderberries contain toxins that can only be destroyed through cooking. Eating unripe or uncooked elderberries may result in nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Elderberry may cause the immune system to be more active, so people with autoimmune disorders should avoid consuming elderberry. Also, be careful not to confuse elderberry shrubs with the toxic water hemlock. These plants look somewhat similar, moreover, they typically grow in the same area. Elderberry has opposing leaves while water hemlock has alternating leaves.  Water hemlock doesn’t grow berries, but they do grow flowers. Water hemlock flowers look similar to elderflowers, but they have a firecracker-like formation. Do not touch or ingest water hemlock flowers at all. Conclusion Elderberry can be a valuable source of food and herbal remedy if you know how to prepare it. This plant’s tiny berries and dainty flowers definitely pack a punch when it comes to flavor. They’re versatile and can be used in a lot of delicious recipes. And their health benefits are undoubtedly amazing as well. It’s not a surprise to find that Native Americans have been using elderberries and elderflowers to make traditional herbal medicine.
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