A taste of spring: Stuffed wild grape leaves
All across the Island the wild grape vines are leafing out. In the fall we'll gather grapes for our jellies but there's no need to wait until autumn to savor the bounty of these vines. Right now the young leaves are tender and this is the ideal time to make stuffed grape leaves.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
30 grape leaves, blanched
1/4 pound ground beef or lamb
1/2 cup rice
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 tbsp. each fresh mint, dill, parsley
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
salt to taste
1 tbsp. olive oil
Makes 20 grape leaves.
June is the busiest time of year for most Islanders. The quiet of winter is lost as we prepare for the onslaught of visitors. In the chaos of getting our house ready to rent I often forget about the grape leaves. By the time I notice them the leaves are too big and tough to use. This year, thankfully, a vine in our yard caught my eye. I've been watching it, waiting until the leaves are about the size of my hand. Today I have the time and the ingredients on hand to make a small batch of stuffed grape leaves for our supper.
Careful not to take too many from any one vine, I soon fill a small basket. Picking is the easy part. Blanching each leaf isn't difficult, but it takes time. I know people who blanch leaves in great numbers and freeze them between pieces of wax paper to have a winter's supply ready. Today it's enough to have one meal's worth.
I put a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Meanwhile, I rinse each leaf and remove its stem. When the water comes to a rolling boil each leaf is blanched for 30 seconds and then placed on a paper towel to dry.
While the first batch of leaves is drying, I make the stuffing mixture. In a cast iron skillet I sauté rice, ground beef, onions, and garlic until the onions become soft. Then I add pine nuts, fresh mint, dill, parsley, cinnamon, and a cup of water. Ground lamb probably would have been more flavorful, but I used ground beef because it was already in the fridge. Once the water is simmering, I cover the skillet and let the mixture steam for about 20 minutes until the rice is cooked. Meanwhile, I return to blanching more grape leaves.
Once the stuffing is ready and the leaves are all blanched the fun begins. The process of filling a grape leaf is a bit awkward at first but with practice the rolling process makes sense and goes quickly. First, place the leaf shiny side down with the bottom of the leaf facing you. Take a teaspoonful of the cooked filling and put it in the center of the leaf about an inch from the bottom. Now the folding begins. Fold up from the bottom part of the leaf. First cover the filling and then continue to roll. As you turn the leaf, gently fold in the sides tucking them under. Finally turn the top of the leaf down to make a seal. With luck you have a homemade rolled grape leaf that looks something like the ones you've seen in Greek and Lebanese delis or bought in cans.
Now the stuffed grape leaves need to be cooked. Line an oven-proof casserole with a layer of the blanched grape leaves. This will keep the stuffed leaves from sticking and provide some moisture. Place the rolled grape leaves gently into the casserole. Sometimes I only have enough stuffed grape leaves for a single layer. It is possible to stack as many as four layers of stuffed leaves. In this case each row must be separated with another layer of leaves. After sprinkling a few tablespoons of water on top I cover the casserole with a plate.
I bake the grape leaves in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Then I let them cool. It's a lovely evening. We can eat outside on the porch, dip the grape leaves into a bowl of fresh hummus, and lick our fingers as we watch the sun dim.
Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.
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