Hoja santa, also known as “holy leaf” is classicly used in Mexican cuisine, and deserves way more attention than it gets in most American kitchens. This digestion-boosting plant is sometimes referred to as pepperleaf, sacred pepper, or root beer plant. Its holy name alludes to a Mexican legend, and while it’s flavor is hard to pin down it’s deliciously memorable and adds a memorable spark to simple dishes like the vinaigrette below form the new Tex-Mex Amá cookbook from the makes of LA hotspot, Bar Amá…
This is one of my favorite dressings, based on the flavors of an Italian dressing—olive oil and lots of garlic—but made with hoja santa, or “holy leaf.” This is an herb with big, floppy leaves that tastes slightly of anise, tarragon, sassafras and mint. At Bar Amá we use it in chile pastes, salsas, soups and beans. I’ve also used it to wrap vegetables before roasting and added it to infusions for ice cream. Sometimes I toast it a little over an open flame to bring out the oils before adding it to a recipe. It’s definitely a favorite herb, and we’re lucky to get it fresh here in Los Angeles—I grow a big pot of it at home.
Note: Fresh hoja santa is available at Latino markets. You can substitute with a dried version, also available at Latino markets and online. One caveat: It should have a pleasant, subtle anise flavor. If it doesn’t, it’s been on the shelf too long.
Hoja Santa Vinaigrette
Makes about 1 /2 cup
1 small fresh hoja santa leaf (1/2 large leaf), or 1 tsp dried hoja santa
1 garlic clove, grated with a rasp-style grater
2 Tbsp fresh yuzu juice, or juice of 1 lime
1/4 tsp fresh black pepper
pinch of fine sea salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Note: To make an oregano vinaigrette, substitute 2 heaping teaspoons of dried Mexican oregano, preferably Oregano Indio, for the hoja santa.
Pass the fresh hoja santa leaf back and forth over the open flame of a gas burner so it gets toasty and releases its oils, about 20 seconds. (You can use tongs for this.)
Finely chop the hoja santa and put it into a small jar with a lid. Add the garlic, yuzu juice, black pepper and sea salt. Seal the jar and shake to combine. Add the olive oil, re-seal and shake. Use immediately or store (covered) in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Reprinted from Ama by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019.