We have limited light in our small backyard because of trees to our south and west. We trellis grapes around six and a half feet above our deck and up onto the wall of our house to maximize our edible gardening space.
Grape leaves are among the first produce of the season from our garden, reaching dolmades-size in early June, right after the peach tree stops blooming and the lilacs are finished. I am careful to remove the leaves primarily from vines we will trim back so that they don’t whack us in the head when we go up and down the stairs from the deck to the back yard. I don’t want to remove too many leaves that will feed the grape bunches on the rest of our vines.
If you don’t have grape vines in your back yard, think of planting some cold hardy varieties. If you don’t have a back yard and you live in Saratoga, there are unsprayed grape vines all around town left over from the Italian gardeners of yesteryear. When I don’t want to use my own leaves, I forage along the fence along the horse track that fronts East Avenue between George and Madison and pick grapes leaves from those vines. Early in the year, you can pick any large grape leaves. Later in the summer, pick the large shade leaves because they are thinner and more tender than the leaves growing in the sun. Grape leaves look something like the maple leaves in the over story along the track, so make sure you are not picking maple leaves from vine-covered saplings instead of grape leaves from vines. The grape leaves are thinner and less deeply lobed.
Parboiling – To make stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades, select around 30 large leaves. Place them three at a time in boiling water for about a minute, until the leaves change color from bright green to dull green. Carefully unfold each leaf and pat it dry with a towel. You can make a flat stack of them while you finish processing the rest of the leaves. They rip easily, so you need to handle them delicately. Take each leaf off the stack and lay it on a cutting board. Use a paring knife to cut off the stem and any thick veins at the bottom of the leaf. Set aside for rolling.
Filling – You can vary this, adding chopped fennel or another firm vegetable, or look up a lamb filling on the internet if you prefer a meat filling.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 finely chopped onion and cook for a few minutes until translucent. Add 1 cup of pine nuts, 1 cup uncooked white rice, 1 tsp salt, 1 ½ cups stock or water, ½ cup chopped mint leaves, ½ cup chopped dill.
Cover, turn heat to medium low and cook for 10 minutes. Remove to a large bowl and cool. Add pepper to taste and the juice of one lemon.
Rolling – Lay each leaf shiny side down, vein-y side up, on a cutting board. Lay a tablespoon of filling in a line across the bottom half of the leaf, around one-third inch up from the edge, parallel to the stem end.
Fold the stem end up over the filing, then fold in the sides, gathering all loose ends toward the middle. Roll up toward the tip of the leaf. Don’t roll the rice-grape leaf packets too tightly, because the filling contains undercooked rice that will expand as you finish cooking the stuffed grape leaves.
Cooking – Place each rolled grape leaf in a large, heavy skillet, seam side down. When all of the leaves are filled and rolled, add enough stock or water to cover the bottom halves of the rolled leaves. Place a Pyrex pie plate on top of the skillet to weigh the dolmades down lightly. Simmer over low heat for half an hour.
Drain, cool and remove to a serving platter. Drizzle with lemon juice and/or olive oil.