I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it yet, but included in our small family farm is a small, established vineyard. We have six rows of grapes, a different cultivar each, and are excited to both enjoy them on the table, as well as making our own wine . . .
T. just attended his first Amateur Winemaker’s Club of Nebraska class this past weekend and came back, ready to take on our vines. He went out the next day and bought a spring-loaded set of pruning shears, and a holster. He’s cool like that. I veto him wearing a cellphone on his hip, but pruning shears? Sure, honey.
First task? To lighten up some of our vines, cleaning up extra, new vines of leaves to allow more sun to hit the grapes and ripen effectively.
My immediate thought? Grape leaves stuffed with . . . something, anything, delicious.
I love Mediterranean food. I love Middle Eastern food. Greek. Lebanese. Yes, please. The common theme between some of my favorite recipes from these cuisines? Grape leaves. And suddenly, I have a bounty of them hanging out on the grass under the vines, just waiting for me to make something good.
But. I wasn’t ready to make anything yet. We still have boxes to unpack! Gardens to weed! Children to feed/bathe/nurse. I wanted time to think about how best to use these leaves, consider recipes, consult my cookbooks, google. I needed to preserve the leaves, but wasn’t ready to use them fresh, yet. So I decided to preserve them. Two ways. Frozen, and canned for shelf-stability. Here’s how I did it . . .
Grape Leaves, preserved two ways . . .
1) Get yourself some fresh grape leaves. If you have your own in your backyard, or can harvest them from a friend’s yard or your grandma, just get some. Plenty. More than you think you will need. It is important to preserve them within a few hours to one day (tops!) of cutting, so be prepared.
By the way, if you do have your own vines, now is the time to prune them! Late spring and early summer when your grapes are just starting to get bigger . . .
2) When you harvest your grape leaves you will not be keeping every leaf on the vine. Far from it. I kept about one in every eight or ten. Some vines were sent to the compost completely, immediately. You want the freshest leaves, with little to no bug bites and no damage. You also want them to be big enough to stuff, about a palm-sized area in the middle of the leaf with room on the edges to roll. Anything smaller and it would be tedious. Bigger, and they’re too tough.
However, keep a few, good quality big leaves too, for lining the pan when you do decide to cook the grape leaves.
When you cut the leaves, make sure that you cut the vine right where it touches the leaves so that they lay flat.
3) When you bring the leaves in, draw them a nice cold bath. Allow them to float, relax, and rinse and drain off all the bugs and dirt. Shuffle them around a bit. Then, rinse, and draw them another one, just in case.
4) Pick out three or four of your largest leaves, the ones to layer in the bottom of the pan, and stack them, dull/bottom side down. Then start layering 25-30 leaves per stack.
All the yiayia’s I referred to for this recipe confirmed that 25-30 grape leaves will accommodate one pound of meat (which coordinates with pretty much every recipe I’ve considered) when preparing filled grape leaves.
I ended up with four stacks of grape leaves . . .
5) With each stack of leaves, starting at one side, roll up like a cigar or like herbs that you are going to chiffonade. Tie with 100% cotton string or thread.
6) Prep a large pot with water and 2 Tablespoons of sea salt and bring to boiling. Fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes.
7) Blanche each roll in the boiling water for one minute, and then remove and immediately immerse into the ice water.
At this stage you now have two options:
To freeze the grape leaves,
Simply squeeze and dry each roll briefly in paper towel, you don’t want to freeze a lot of extra water in between the leaves. Then wrap each roll tightly in plastic wrap, place into a freezer bag and freeze! That simple! You’re done!
To use, simply defrost in warm water, in the plastic wrap, until thawed. Use as the recipe instructs (no need for rinsing, as in too salty canned leaves) and enjoy!
I know, at this point you’re asking yourself,
“If freezing is so simple, why on earth did you also can them?”
Because I am afflicted with too-small-freezer-itis. My freezer is full of elk, venison, shrimp and chicken. Roasted Hatch green chiles from last summer along with sliced bell peppers, green beans, frozen peas and pearl onions. Chicken stock. Butter. Herb butters. Coffee. Rosemary stems (for barbecuing). Breast milk. Ice. An ice cream maker bowl. Six kinds of flour. I need more space. I need another freezer. But until I get one, I have shelves available, so . . .
To make jarred, shelf-stable grape leaves,
While you are prepping the water to boil for blanching, bring a pot of water and lemon juice or citric acid to boiling. You want 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice to every 1 cup or water OR 1-1/4 cups of water plus 1/2 teaspoon citric acid. For each quart jar I used about 2 cups of liquid, so make enough accordingly.
Basically, what you’re doing here is you’re turning grape leaves, which are a low-acid food, into a form of pickle by adding acid so that you can preserve it in a boiling-water bath rather than having to pressure can them.
Also, prep a hot water canner, sanitize your jars and heat a small pan of water for the lids and rings. Make sure that the lids and rings do NOT boil, but just stay hot.
Once the leaves are blanched and cooled, place each roll into a wide-mouth, quart-sized jar, folding leaves down, if needed, to fit. Add hot lemon-water over the top to cover, making sure you leave at least 1/2″ headspace. Using a chopstick or small spatula, move it around to uncork any hidden air bubbles. Then, remove lid from hot water, press down firmly on top of the jar and then use a ring to seal. Process jars for 15 minutes (begin timing once the water gets back to boiling – you want at least 1″ of water covering the tops of the jars) in boiling water before removing to a towel-lined counter. Allow to cool and check seal. If sealed correctly, simply store in your pantry until you are ready to use!
Since they are not heavily salted, no need to rinse as in some commercially prepared jars. Prepare as your recipe states and enjoy!
This is truly a recipe that uses what could be waste or straight to the compost pile, and turns it into a gourmet item. I can’t wait to enjoy them! If you have a favorite recipe using grape leaves, please share it in the comments.
Special thanks to Lulu of Mama’s Taverna for her excellent pictorial as well as the ladies of and my various yiayia’s who advised me on how best to preserve these leaves, and gave me some great recipes on how to use them! ,