Cooking With Wild Grape Leaves -by Loba

All over the canyon, the grape vines are loaded with the most beautiful leaves. Picking them is my my favorite activity after I’ve gone for a float in the river. I love to arrange them in a perfect pile as I pick a stack big enough to have with our supper, with some extra to add to the quart jar on the counter. I’ll try to fill a few gallon jars of these precious leaves before the summer is over, most likely with the help of many guests and students.

It’s hard to imagine the special quality grape leaves can impart without experimenting with them yourself! And for me, it’s hard to imagine life without grape leaves! We take out a little stack of leaves and rinse them off to use as wrappers for a huge variety of dishes– from Asian-style stir-fry to Mediterranean influenced polenta and rice dishes, to Mexican-Native American style chile and beans. We chop them up and put them in chile, in potato salad, in posole, in panfuls of stir-fried yams, tomato sauce, or with chicken and onions. And perhaps my favorite thing to do with them is to make a skillet full of Pan-Fried Grape Leaves, or a pot of Steamed Grape Leaves. They’re “oh-my-goodness-YUM”!

Harvesting, Preserving, Shopping for and Stuffing Grape Leaves

If you have a grapevine to pick from, make sure it hasn’t been sprayed, and harvest the biggest leaves you can get. Ideally they’ll be about big as your hand. It’s fine to use smaller leaves, they’ll just be a bit harder to stuff. When I harvest I often put the smaller leaves in a separate jar, and use these for chopping up, and save the big ones for stuffing. To preserve the leaves, put them in a quart or gallon jar, cover with water and add salt. If you’re planning on using the leaves up in the next month or two, you can use 4 tablespoons of salt per quart. If you’d like to store them for the winter, double the amount. Weight the leaves down beneath the water with a clean stone that fits easily inside the jar. Keep a lid on the jar. You can add more leaves as you are able to make time for picking them.

When using fresh picked leaves for stuffing, you can soften the leaves by soaking them in boiling water for a few minutes to make them easier to handle.

If you don’t have a grapevine, there are jarred grapeleaves available in Mediterranean stores, I’ve heard that the quality of them is not consistent, so keep trying till you find a brand that you like. If you’re using preserved grape leaves for a recipe, either home-preserved or store bought, be sure to rinse them off before using them, as the salt can be a bit intense.
To stuff the leaves, open a leaf and spread it on the kitchen counter with the smooth side of the leaf down, the rougher veined underside of the leaf up. If the stem is still attached, pinch or cut it off. Put a spoonful of stuffing at the base of the leaf, where the stem was attached, close to the edge. Fold the bottom edge up around the stuffing, then fold in each side, right and left. Carefully roll the leaf toward the point, keeping everything as tucked in as you can.

Pan-Fried Grape Leaves

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 cloves garlic
1 onion
3 cups cooked rice, brown or white basmati, or sushi rice
1 cup minced fresh tomatoes
1 cup cabbage, chopped rather finely
1/2 lemon, or 2 tablespoons minced preserved lemon
1 chipotle chile, minced very finely (omit if you’re very sensitive to hot things)
3-4 oz. sharp cheddar, jarlsberg, or mozzarella cheese, chopped in small pieces (about 3/4 cup cheese cubes)
5 tablespoons Butter Toasted Pine Nuts, or chopped Butter Toasted cashews, walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup cooked ground lamb or pork sausage, crumbled (optional)
Salsa and Sour Cream, for serving

Saute the onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil till it just begins to soften (a few minutes), then add the chopped cabbage. Cook until the cabbage softens, a few more minutes. If using fresh lemon, cut into thin slices, remove the seeds and mince as finely as you can. Add the lemon (fresh or preserved), the pine nuts and the minced chipotle chile to the pan with the rice and a few more tablespoons of olive oil. Mix well in the pan and heat until everything is well incorporated. Turn off the heat and let cool for a minute or two before you add the cubed cheese. After adding the cheese, follow the instructions for stuffing the grape leaves. When done, heat a large skillet and pour in four tablespoons of oil. As soon as the oil’s hot, place the little stuffed leaves in the oil, folded side down, and tilt the pan a bit to spread the oil around somewhat. Cook the stuffed leaves on both sides until they’re deeply browned and crispy around the edges. Expect some of the cheese to leak out and form “cheese crispies” at either end of the little packets, and expect some of the leaves to fall apart– don’t worry, just continue to cook them and they’ll be just as delicious!

Serve with slices of fresh lemon for squeezing (to balance out the oil), or salsa mixed with sour cream. I also love to mix a little minced chipotle en adobo and minced whole lemon!

Steamed Grape Leaves

You can use the recipe above for the filling, but instead of pan-frying the stuffed leaves, carefully stack them in a steaming rack set inside a large pot. Steam them for about 20 minutes, and serve with melted butter or olive oil with several teaspoons of lightly sauteed minced garlic stirred in. Minced fresh rosemary in the garlic oil or butter is even more amazing!

Enjoy! And let me know how your experiments go!
Love, Loba

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