(2009) My first choice for making filled grape leaves (aka ‘dolmas’) is using fresh off the vines leaves. Every season there is a narrow window of opportunity when they are the right size, young and tender. As soon as the tiny fruit appears the leaves are too tough to eat and removing them injures the vines and may affect the grapes.
When fresh leaves are no longer available or suitable for stuffing we have no choice other than purchase jarred leaves and suffer the consequences. The first problem is the size of the leaves; some so tiny only children could fill and roll them, if only they had the manual dexterity. Other leaves are so large they are only suitable for making edible bikinis. Some of the leaves are torn and/or tough; all of them still have the stems attached.
The main problem is that they are packed in salty brine that masks the real taste of the leaves.
And, at six dollars a jar it’s a pricey loss.
Don’t bother sending complaint letters; the few companies that corner the market just don’t care. When my mother sent a letter of dissatisfaction she received a free case of leaves with the same problems! Your only satisfaction is canning the leaves yourself.
My great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and aunts all preserved their own grape leaves. Cleaned grape leaves were stacked then rolled into bundles and tied with cotton twine. The perfect sized leaves were packed into canning jars, covered with a light brine, and processed in a hot water bath. I use a light brine that contains fresh lemon juice that enhances the natural flavor of the leaves.
Rather than use the hot water bath I store the jarred leaves in my refrigerator; a shelf of jars devoted to my favorite food is worth the space.
Preserved Grape Leaves
Makes 1 quart
Cook’s notes: Pick grape leaves that are the size of your palms. The leaves are the most tender before the grapes appear on the vines. Leaves with a white backing are too tough for cooking but will work for pickling recipes. Grape leaves contain tannins that help keep cucumber pickles crisp. Avoid vines that have been sprayed with pesticides.
80-100 Fresh Grape Leaves, rinsed
1 quart Filtered Water
¼ cup Lemon Juice
1 tablespoon Kosher Salt
Remove the stems from the leaves. Place them in bowl and cover them with boiling water. Drain after 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, stack about 20 leaves, vein sides up, and loosely roll the stacks of leaves from bottom up to the top. Place the leaf rolls in a clean wide mouth one-quart canning jar.
Bring the water, lemon juice, and salt to a boil in a saucepan. Strain the brine then pour the hot brine over the leaves, leaving a ½ inch headspace.
Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean damp towel. Place a clean lid on the jar then secure with a band.
Allow the jars to cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator.
Rinse the leaves before filling and baking.