One of the first, and favorite, things I ever wrote about food was a poem about picking grape leaves. There is, it seems, poetry to be found in the memory of being a child following the ladies out to the edge of a parking lot somewhere to pick what felt like illicit leaves to be stuffed for our big pots of grape leaf rolls (also known as the Greek version, dolma or dolmades).
Every spring, when the vines have unfurled their leaves at that perfect moment between tender and strong, I imagine the mass exodus of Lebanese coming out of their homes across the wide world and scurrying out to their secret vines to pick the leaves by the hundreds. It’s our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, our holy grail, our heart’s content. Our grape leaf.
Often we turn to jars of leaves for our rolls, but fresh leaves are a tradition worth holding onto. Mothers teach their children and then their grandchildren, and then we, God-willing, teach ours, this:
- Generally grape leaves are picked from wild vines. Cultivated vines for grapes are not used for their leaves, because they are not tender or as flavorful. The wild vines are just that, devoting all of their energies to the leaves and never bearing fruit. The vines are not as a rule planted in the gardens of the Lebanese (though I vow to have one of my own someday), at least not around here. Instead I think we enjoy the thrill of the chase to find the leaves along fences at the edges of deserted parking lots. When we pick there, a passerby wonders what it is those rather odd folk are doing.
- Wild grape leaves have three lobes and are notched all the way around. The vine itself is reddish and the leaves are bright green.
- Pick the medium-sized leaves. They are tenderer than the larger leaves, but stronger than the very small leaves and will hold more stuffing. Pick at the base of the stem, where it attaches to the vine. That stem will be trimmed off later, but it protects the leaf from tearing when picked and gives the leaf more longevity until it’s used.
- Ignore the leaves that have holes or tears in them. They’re useless for stuffing.
- Wash the leaves by rinsing them in cool water just before using them, then patting dry. But they may well not need any washing at all if they look clean, and especially if they are blanched (briefly boiled) before they are rolled. We don’t usually blanch the leaves before rolling, but if the leaves are tough they may need that or a warm water soak to soften up.
- Store the leaves by freezing them, without washing them, in stacks wrapped well with plastic wrap, then in a heavy duty freezer bag. Aunt Hilda froze hers in a shoe box for reinforcement. Smart. This protects the leaves from the cold and from being banged by other things in the freezer. If you’re holding the leaves for just a few days, keep them in a ventilated bag in the refrigerator.
- Frozen leaves last 6 months to a year in the freezer. I used leaves I picked last spring for a batch of our vegetarian grape leaf rolls this week, and they were a little dry and some frost-bitten, so I’d get at them sooner than a year ideally. But they rolled and cooked up beautifully. And tasted great.
Do you have other tips for us? Please share! I just love hearing from so many of you. Your stories are wonderful. David Nader of Pennsylvania wrote to me that his treasured wild vine was transplanted 23 years ago from his mother’s vine, which was itself, it’s believed, transplanted from Lebanon. Here’s a shot of his first pick of the season this week, some 400 in all!
May you find, or grow, a fine vine everyone…and pick to your heart’s content.