Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stuffed Fresh Foraged Grape Leaves

A problem you might have, if you're me, is that as people are barely just tasting whatever it is you've made, you're already saying, "Right? Is that not the best thing you ever ate?" and so when they go on to compliment you, you can never be sure of authenticity. That said, these are the best thing anyone ever ate, and I know because after asked, everyone agreed.
I am a little wild-grape obsessed, it is true. Come fall, I cannot go anywhere without sniffing the air. Do you smell that? The grapes? And then I have to wade into this or that tangle of vines and poison ivy to harvest the giant purple clusters or, more often, the small, shriveled and bug-infested clusters, which make everyone's lips itch raw, so I boil them up into the jam that we eat all year long. 

I love them so much. The dizzyling sweet smell, the color in the pot, even the tingle on my lips if I grab and eat a grape or two as I jog past them on the bike path.
Birdy, harvesting grape leaves. Secure a helper, and you'll fill your bag in no time.
But, while I have eyeballed them somewhat regularly, I have never used the leaves before this year. And that has all changed. Come June, you will never again find me not making dolmas with fresh wild grape leaves, because a) free food, and b) they are simply unbelievably fabulous and fun to make. It turns out that the dolmas taste? That you thought was, maybe, inherent in the can or in your Greek deli? That's the grape leaves themselves! Tangy and green-tasting and just the tiniest bit grapey, unless that was our imagination. And we looked at a million recipes to cobble together the perfect filling: arborio rice, toasted pine nuts, dried fruit, browned onions, dill, mint. A little savory and sweet and herby, a little tart and earthy. We are not snobs: We love the dolmas that come in a can, but these are better.
We made them once with sour cherries and once with golden raisins. I loved them both, but thought the sweetness of the raisins better balanced the finished dolmas, rather than the tart-on-tart of the cherries. Others disagreed. Your call.
We made them twice in three days, and will make them again and again, until the leaves get too tough to use, which will probably be the middle of July, depending on the heat and rain situation. 

Edited to add: this is more of a PROJECT than a recipe, which some readers found out the hard way. Sorry, Cathy!
So, if you live in the northeast or the midwest, now is the time. This is one of the best projects ever--and kind of weirdly not that fussy. (That can't be true, but that really is how it felt. Maybe because we always sit down to do stuffing-and-filling projects, like dumplings or these.) Birdy and I harvested the leaves in the woods behind our house, on the bike path near us, but we have seen them everywhere, including in lots of people's yards! 
Even just within walking distance from our house, we found and picked three completely different shaped grape leaves. I would say the middle shape is the most common around here.
There's great information here about how to identify and harvest them, and there's good information here about how to prepare them. If you aren't sure whether you'd looking at grape leaves or not, you can just wait until the fall, see if grapes grow there, and then make a mental note to look again next June. You want to pick leaves that are large enough the stuff and sturdy enough to not fall apart, but still tender-feeling so that they won't be tough and/or stringy. It's a little bit of trial and error! While you're picking, be sure to pick plenty of too-small, too-tough, too-large, or too-bug-bitten leaves, since you'll need those to line the pan.


Stuffed Fresh Foraged Grape Leaves
If you used jarred grape leaves, these would doubtless still be completely excellent and worth your while, even though you will never find a cheaper thrill than foraging. (Lots of process photos below.)

For the leaves:
20-24 perfect-ish grape leaves (These should be around 5 or 6 inches at their widest point, but smaller or larger is fine too!) plus 12-20 more imperfect ones for lining and sealing the baking dish
4 cups water
1 cup kosher salt

Trim the stems off the grape leaves and pick off any visible bugs. Bring the water and salt to a boil and boil the grape leaves, twelve at a time, just until they all change from green to khaki (5-20 seconds). Pull them out of the water with tongs, and plunge them into a sink filled with cold water and ice. When all the leaves are boiled and cooled, lay them on dish towels to dry off a bit, or gently wring them dry and spread them flat. They will (I think because of the salt?) feel sort of weirdly crisp at this point, and that's fine. I do not know why you blanch them in brine, but that's what some old Greek lady said to do, so that's what I do. I should try blanching them in plain water to see if there's a difference. Prepare the imperfect leaves the same way, but put them in a different spot so you can keep track of them.

For the filling:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 small onions, finely chopped (around 1 ½ cups)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup pine nuts
1 cup arborio rice, rinsed
¼ cup dried sour cherries or golden raisins, finely chopped (or 1/4 cup currants)
½ cup water
¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint (or 1 teaspoon dried, added with the rice)
Black pepper

Heat the oil in a wide pan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and salt and sauté until the onion is tender, translucent, and just starting to brown, around 7 or 8 minutes. Add the pine nuts and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the rice and sauté for another 5 minutes, until the rice looks a little translucent around the edges. Add the cherries and water and cook until the water is absorbed, 5-10 minutes (the rice will not be cooked through). Turn off the heat and stir in the herbs and pepper.

Heat the oven to 325 and grease a 7- by 12-inch (or similar-sized). Line the pan with a layer of prepared grape leaves (your worst ones), which will keep the dolmas from burning.

One at a time, lay a grape leaf on your work surface, dark side down and with the stem end facing you. Lay a heaping tablespoon of filling near the stem end. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling, then roll the leaf up tightly, tucking in the sides as you go (this is exactly the same as making a burrito and quite similar to swaddling a baby). Lay the filled leaf, seam-side down, in the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling, fitting the dolmas snugly in the pan. Stop when you run out of room in the pan, which should be around the time you run out of leaves and filling. (In truth, both times I had a little extra filling, which I cooked up with more water until the rice was tender, and which the kids ate like it was risotto and declared delicious.)

Pour over the dolmas a mixture of 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, ¼ cup lemon juice, and ¼ cup olive oil, then lay the remaining imperfect grape leaves over the top, tucking in the sides like the dolmas are going to bed. Cover the pan tightly with foil, put it in the heated oven, and bake for 1 hour, at which point most or all of the liquid should be absorbed. Even if it's not, this is probably a good time to check and see if they're done, which they probably are.

Leave the dolmas to rest under all their wrappings for half an hour or so, then serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with lemon slices, if you like.


  1. Awesome share! I am onto it!

  2. Oh my goodness, I want to make these RIGHT NOW! We have tons of grape vines--wild and domestic--in our very own yard. Too bad I have to spend my evening on the bleachers at a baseball game.

  3. I am inspired. Now, to find grape leaves.

    My mother used to make them with meat and a tomato sauce, taught to her by the Greek wife of a friend. They're good too - and I've never seen them anywhere.

  4. Francine10:59 AM

    I did go foraging grape leaves yesterday, after a rainy day doing nothing good, and did stuff the leaves, which felt adventurously satisfying, changing a bit your recipe (pumpkin seeds and golden berries...) and it was excellent! Thanks again for the inspiration. Will do it again soon!
    (By the way, did the "Cake you want" for the milionest time this week for various anniversaries, and was good again and much praised, etc. Thank you for that also, again!)

  5. Anonymous10:27 AM

    The part about this recipe that I kinda missed the first time around was that it was a 'project'. And that they needed to cook for an hour. I loved the part where my son biked up the road to where he could pick the leaves and stuff them in his bike basket. And the part where we all stood at the kitchen counter filled the leaves and wrapped them up like we do when we make blintzes. But at 7:50 p.m. when I was finally finishing this project (I made them along with dinner, so two things going at once prolonged things a bit) and saw they needed to cook for an hour, I almost fell over. I felt like I was working on these things for 6 hours! Oh, how I love your recipes, but this one got me so cranky I started calling them grape leaf rice turds. But that was unfair. Very. They are delicious. AND we are excited for the wild grape jam in the fall. We made your any-berry jam, too (maybe I tried to do too much in one day?) and it was amazing. --Cathy K

    1. I added an apologetic photo caption in your honor.

    2. Anonymous12:45 PM


  6. These grape leaf rice turds sound delicious!

  7. Anonymous10:06 AM

    I've made these twice, once reluctantly with meat (and forgetting to rinse the brined leaves) and once EXACTLY by the book.The grapes live just outside my back door and are constantly in need of a haircut. Both batches were well loved, and the second batch soothed the nerves of a Greek American friend, who gave the recipe a thumbs up. I have some extra brined leaves in the fridge just waiting for a night when I cook a little too much rice. And to Anonymous above, I'll report that the second batch took much less time.

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