I've spoken before about my love of foraging. It mostly manifests itself in summertime tromps through thorny thickets in the pursuit of brambles and pulling the car onto the shoulder to pick some black walnuts, but lately it's been all about grape leaves. You can, of course, buy bottled grape leaves, and I'm sure they're fine, but fresh grape leaves would appear not to exist, at least not anywhere that I shop. So I'd been keeping an eye out for wild grape leaves, and it turns out that, at the right time of year, they are anything but hard to find. At least around here. In fact, to take the picture above, I just had to walk down to the end of my street, then across the street it runs into, point, and shoot. Grape leaves everywhere, and I picked a bunch of them.
You should understand this already, but gathering wild foods can be an iffy prospect for a number of reasons, ranging from angry landowners to mushrooms that look just like the ones you had in the old country but are really the other ones that will kill you. So after I'd picked about three dozen of the largest grape leaves I could find, I came back home and did a little research on ye olde Internet. What I learned is that grape leaves are really not toxic and are not very hard to recognize (though they vary quite a bit in appearance, even if they're on the very same vine), so I felt fairly confident using the ones that I'd gathered. People who gather wild foods generally will tell you to gather them at a decent distance from the highway to avoid things like pesticides and exhaust residue. I'm reasonably sure that the county isn't spraying pesticides where I was gathering my grape leaves, and exhaust residue is something that I'm willing to pretend that I don't know about. In any case, I washed the leaves well and blanched them before I used them, but I am in no way telling you to go to the end of the street and eat whatever you find there. In fact, when I blanched my grape leaves all but one of them turned a sort of olive green, so I assumed that the one that retained its bright green color was another sort of leaf that I'd picked by mistake, and I threw it away.
Wild grape leaves, at least right now and right here, are not quite as big as I would have liked. Some recipes recommend using leaves that are at least six inches in diameter, and I doubt that more than a couple of the ones I picked were that big. Most of them were more in the five-inch range, so I ended up using less filling. In fact, I still have about half of my filling left over.
And, to be honest, this probably isn't the greatest dolmade filling ever. You might be better off with something made with white rice and ground lamb. I probably would have used ground lamb if I could have found it in a two-ounce package at the supermarket. I eat lots of meat already, and I think that a dolmade should have a primarily grain- or grass-based filling, but a small amount of lamb would add some good flavor. Alternatively, I probably should have just added significantly more olive oil to the filling. The filling does a good flavor, and what's left over will be good as a sort of tabouleh, once I add more olive oil. As a dolmade filling, it is a little bit gummy. But I am, of course, holding it to a very high standard. Covering the still-hot dolmades with lemon juice and olive oil and letting them soak a while helps a lot.
You can, of course, stuff grape leaves with anything you like. You could probably make meatballs and wrap the grape leaves around the meatballs and then steam them. Or you could make ravioli filling and wrap that up in grape leaves. Neither of those ideas strikes me as ideal, but I'm sure that some experimentation in the dolmade universe is long overdue. Perhaps you could grind up some toasted walnuts (or pine nuts) with some feta, stir in an egg, and wrap tablespoons of that up in grape leaves. I think that sounds yummy. Perhaps I'll try it, now that I have an apparently unlimited supply. I have not yet tried freezing the (unstuffed) grape leaves, but I will soon, and then it's dolmades all year long!
Most recipes tell you to roll your dolmades with the shiny side down. The problem is that not all grape leaves have a shiny side. Some of the leaves might be shiny, then farther down the same vine, they might not be, and the shiny leaves might be too small. In any case, the shiny side is the side that's usually facing up when you gather the leaves. The non-shiny side is the veinier ("veinier" = "more veiny") side, aka the underside, aka the side that faces the same way that the stem goes. In other words, if you put the grape leaf on a counter so that the stem is facing up, the veiny/veinier side will also be facing up, and that's the way you want the leaf oriented when you're going to fill and roll it. The leaves naturally curl that way, so rolling them the other way would probably be difficult.
Fresh grape leaves
1 cup brown rice
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. smoked paprika
1/4 c. mint, chopped fine
1/3 c. currants1
1/3 c. sunflower seeds
1/2 c. fine bulgar2
1/2 medium small onion, diced fine
1 T. olive oil3
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 c. lemon juice
1/2 c. olive oil
1 t. dijon mustard
In a four-quart or larger saucepan, bring two to three quarts of water to a boil. Add half a cup of kosher salt. Wash the grape leaves well and cut off any stems with kitchen shears. With the water at a full boil, add the grape leaves and blanch for sixty seconds. Remove from the water, rinse with cold water, and drain.
In another saucepan, combine the brown rice, two cups of water, a good pinch of salt, the cumin, and the smoked paprika. Cover and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for twenty-five minutes. Add the currants, stir, recover, and cook for about another fifteen minutes, or until the rice is done. Stir in the mint and sunflower seeds.
Meanwhile, put the bulgar in a heatproof bowl, bring another cup of water to a boil, pour it over the bulgar and let it sit.
At about the same time, put a skillet over low heat, add the tablespoon of olive oil, and add the onion. Stir occasionally until soft and translucent. Turn off the heat.
Add the bulgar and the onion to the rice mixture. Stir well.
Separate a grape leaf from the pack. Put it on the counter so that the veiny side is up and the pointy end is facing away from you. Take a dollop of the filling that looks like it is just the right size to be contained by the grape leaf, and put it in the center of the leaf, right near where the stem used to be attached. Fold the sides of the leaf over onto the filling and then roll it up, away from you and toward the pointy end. Place the filled, rolled leaf in the basket of your steamer, so that the seam is down. Repeat the same process with as many leaves as you're using. Pack them into the steamer basket fairly tightly. Put some water in the bottom of the steamer and place it over a high flame until the water boils. Reduce the heat to the lowest level that will keep it boiling and put the steamer basket over the boiling water. Put the lid on. Steam for about forty-five minutes, adding additional water if it starts to run out, until the grape leaves are tender.
Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, salt and pepper to make a vinaigrette. When the dolmades are still hot or warm, pack them into a bowl, pouring some vinaigrette over each layer. Cover them and refrigerate them until cold. Serve cold or at room temperature.
1For reasons that cannot begin to be fathomed, I could not find any currants in the kitchen, so I substituted finely chopped raisins. Use the currants.
2What I use is something that is labeled as "cracked wheat" and "fine." It appears to be the same thing as bulgar. Coarse bulgar is probably just as good, maybe better, but I didn't have any.
3I was also out of the good olive oil. I used the cheap olive oil (that my partner, both of whose parents immigrated here from Italy, claims is just as good as any extra virgin olive oil; he is wrong about that, of course) for the vinaigrette, and I used butter to cook the onion. What you really want, though, is a good olive oil for both.
You will notice that making the dolmades is quite a pan-intensive process. Alas. Most of the pans will be easy to clean, and you can easily make a one-pan filling, with some very minor modifications.
For me, the most challenging part of this preparation was figuring out how long to steam the grape leaves. The filling is entirely cooked by the time it gets into the grape leaves, but they take a good while to become tender. It's possible that a longer blanching would enable a shorter steaming. Something else to experiment with. The grape leaves seem a bit impervious, so it's not clear how much moisture gets through the leaves and into the filling, but I suspect that it's not much. That's why the grains need to be cooked before they go into the leaves. Besides, if the grains were uncooked, they'd swell, and you might have bursting dolmades, which is a much better name for a band than for an appetizer. If you have a filling that needs to be cooked but doesn't need to absorb water, though, you could wrap it up while it's still raw.