Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grape leaves

I invited friends over to dinner last weekend -- promising fare from my garden -- only to realize that my edibles were either fading out (rhubarb, lettuce) or still in their infancy (tomatoes, peppers). I scavenged beet greens, herbs and pea shoots, and then the grapevine caught my eye. The new vines were springing out all over their trellis -- lush and leafy, and threatening as usual to overtake the whole garage roof. I had cooked with brined jarred grape leaves before -- why not fresh ones?

My extensive cookbook collection yielded little information on preparation of fresh grape leaves, and even the internet yielded scant results -- a lot of "I'm planning to try this" articles, rather than articles speaking with the wisdom of hindsight. The most authoritative article, or at least the most confident, gave several different blanching methods. I picked young, undamaged leaves and carefully trimmed out the thicker stems and veins. As for blanching, I went with "plunge into boiling salted water, turn off the heat, and wait 3 to 5 minutes". Fishing them out of the water, they had the consistency of wet paper towel, although they didn't rip quite as much as I expected.

Now, the traditional Greek way to prepare these would be dolmades, those lemony packets of rice often served room temperature and slick with olive oil at Mediterranean restaurants. In retrospect, this would have been a good choice, if only because this preparation adds another hour of simmering to the leaves. But no, I had to be Little-Miss-Locavore. I spurned exotic rice and lemon in favor of home-preserved figs and local cheese. I rolled each leaf with half a brandied fig, a sprinkle of sea salt and a chunk of black pepper goat cheese from the farmer's market. I briefly considered grilling them, but it was 90 degrees and just the blanching had been so unpleasantly hot that I decided to keep cool and serve them as is. I wasn't in left-field with this approach -- I had found several recipes with similar serving suggestions, albeit with the more processed brined and jarred leaves.

I served them in the backyard, in sight of the original vines. The finished product looked nice, but the leaves were tough. No, they were beyond tough -- it was like chewing cud. My husband had to take a discreet walk over to the compost pile. The salty-sweet filling was very good, and it made me realize I just should have stuffed the figs with goat cheese and left it at that. What is the point of the grape leaf anyway? To bundle up a filling, like rice or meat, that would otherwise crumble out. The brined leaves add a sour-salty taste to dishes, but the fresh ones tasted bland and green and were tough to bite through. I'm not sure if grilling would have helped -- it might have just made the leaf tough and charred. So, there's a local food failure. I don't think I care enough about eating grape leaves to try again -- in the end they are just a finger-food delivery system for better tasting morsels. I can use lettuce or rice paper for that. Maybe one day I'll find a Greek grandma to teach me the age old ways, but my guess is that the wisdom lies in simmering them for a good hour before attempting to take a bite.

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