From the Ground Up: Brined grape leaves
by Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan
While Georgeanne was in France investigating hand-harvested sea salt last week, I was working with grape leaves. Grape leaves are edible and may be used as you would a cabbage leaf for wrapping. Late spring is their time, so verdant and tender, and I experimented with harvesting, canning and stuffing leaves from the vines that shade my summer table.
Grape leaf stuffing stems from the cuisines of the Ottoman Empire and surrounding areas of Russia and Iran. There are many names for the finished product. Dolma (Dolmades is plural for Dolma) refers to the family of stuffed vegetables, whether grape leaves, zucchini, zucchini blossoms, tomatoes, eggplant or peppers. Sarma refers to a wrapped thing in general and Yalangi refers to stuffed grape leaves in particular. By any name, stuffed grape leaves are delicious, and the leaves, which are climbing and swirling right now, are easy to can.
I now have two quarts of canned grape leaves in my glass pantry, a reminder in the short days of winter of the once tender and verdant grape leaves that shaded my table. Later in the year, I’ll fill them with savory stuffing such as medium-grain rice, onions, olive oil, and lemon juice, herbs such as dill, mint or parsley, spices such as cinnamon, pepper, allspice, and dried fruit such as raisins or currents.
If I serve them as a main course I might include minced lamb or beef, long-grain rice, onions, olive oil, lemon juice, and spices. Either can be served with a yogurt based sauce, with mint or dill and cucumber. Georgeanne might use the leaves to wrap trout for grilling over a hot fire so that the fish absorbs a hint of the grapevine while giving up its skin to the leaf leaving only the succulent white flesh of the fish.
Canning the leaves, a simple process, take about two hours. Once you’ve secured a source of grape leaves that you know are free from pesticide or other sprays, select medium sized leaves and cut them off without their stem. Stack them in groups of 10 to make counting easy. Rinse each leaf. Roll 20 leaves, shiny side out, and tie each bundle with cotton string. Blanche. Place three rolls into a sterilized quart jar, fill with brine, and place in a water bath for 15 minutes.
Once opened, you’d soak the leaves in cold water to cover for about 10 minutes to remove the excess saltiness. However, you don’t have to prepare your own leaves in order to enjoy making dolmas. Melanie Bajakian, co owner of the Buckhorn Steakhouse and Putah Creek Café in Winters with her husband John Pickerel, shared her classic recipe here for Armenian Yalangi, stuffed grape leaves.
Melanie’s Stuffed Grape Leaves: Yalangi (Makes 40-60)
1 cup rice, short to medium grain, washed in warm water
5 pounds yellow onion chopped
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups water
3 teaspoons crushed dried dill
3 teaspoons fresh dill, chopped
2 t salt
½ t chopped mint leaves (Melanie leaves these out as she has a yogurt sauce with mint leaves in it – if you’re not using a sauce, you may want to put these in)
½ teaspoon allspice
2-3 lemons (fresh lemon juice to taste)
Grape leaves (40-60)
Putting it Together
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Filling (The Pourd):
Sauté onions in the olive oil in big frying pan until light golden, barely brown, about 15-20 minutes. Taste for sweetness ((Melanie frequently adds a little sugar if it’s not sweet enough.) Add one cup of the water (holding the second cup in reserve for later), rice, salt and mix well. Cover and boil for a few minutes until water is absorbed. Take off fire and let it cool for ten minutes, or until rice is almost all cooked. Add the dill and allspice, and squeeze a little lemon on at this point (about 1/2 lemon.) Taste mixture and adjust for salt, and other spices.
If you are using canned grape leaves, wash to rinse the salt off. If using fresh, remove the stem, wash, and then blanch in hot water for one minute or less (can do this in rolls of 25 with cotton string tied around the bundle.) Let cool.
Put the leaf shiny side down, heavy vein side up. Place a teaspoon, not very much, in the middle, shaped like your pointer finger. Beginning with the center where the vein is, roll the end up over the filling, tuck the right side in and then left side. Continue to roll. Melanie says to bring your Armenian fingers when you show up to roll with her. Line a very heavy Dutch oven or pot, (Melanie uses her Le Creuset oval French oven which comes in 6-15 quart sizes), with very large (tough) or torn grape leaves which you won’t be using for a wrap. Place the Yalangi close together and continue the process with three or four layers. Once stacked, pour the reserved one cup of water over the Yalangi and squeeze juice from one lemon on top (seeds are ok.) Then put grape leaves on the top, followed by a heavy plate or dish to weight the Yalangi down during the baking process, and finally, place the lid on top.
Baking and Serving:
Put lid on, and put in low oven, 325 for an hour and 15 minutes in preheated oven. Remove from oven and cool with lid on. When cool, take lid and the top grape leaves off, and arrange on a round platter in a starburst pattern. Garnish with very thinly sliced rounds of fresh lemon in the middle. Eat cold or room temperature. If you are serving yours at table, you may want to serve with a sauce. In which case, mix together one cup plain yogurt, one cucumber (skinned, seeded and chopped), a little olive oil, minced garlic (one clove), a little lemon juice, salt and some chopped mint or dill.
Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan have a food and marketing consulting firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. They co-lead Slow Food Yolo. Reach them at email@example.com.