From backyards in Brooklyn to vineyards on Long Island, grape leaves are abundant right now. The lush, verdant leaves shade fruit that is still several months from ripeness, but now’s the time to eat the leaves. In just a few more weeks, the leaves will turn tough and stringy.
Grape leaves are most often used for dolmades, which is the Greek term for stuffed grape leaves. But it’s a sad fact of life that often dolmades are sub par — the leaves are stringy or the filling is overcooked.
Chef Diane Kochilas is the author of 17 books on Greek cuisine.
“I think the secret is more onions than you can imagine in the filling,” she said, “because the grape leaf is briny and even a fresh grape leaf has a somewhat sour note to it.”
The amount of onions Kochilas recommends is about 10 onions for a six-person serving of grape leaves.
The reason for the large amount of onions is because the grated onion and its juices caramelize as the stuffing cooks.
“That’s what gives a really good dolma …that irresistible sweetness,” Kochilas said.
In addition to onions, the rice is often mixed with pine nuts, raisins, and herbs. Meat can also be mixed in, though Kochilas admits that she prefers the vegetarian versions.
(Photo: Diane Kochilas)
Another important point is to make sure the rice is less than al dente before being rolled into dolmades. That will keep the stuffing from getting mushy in the last stage of cooking.
“When I cook them in a pot, I just add enough water to barely cover them,” said Kochilas. “And by the end of the cooking process most of that water has been absorbed.”
As for those fortunate enough to be picking fresh grape leaves, Kochilas recommends selecting the smaller leaves because they are more tender.
“And you also need to be careful which leaves you’re picking,” she added, “because what does the grape leaf do? It … protects the grapes from being burnt by the sun. So you want to make sure when you’re doing that you’re leaving enough protection for the fruit.”
In Greece, Kochilas said that the sultanina grape, a type of table grape, is rumored to have the most tender leaves.
Once in the kitchen, Kochilas, who is the consulting chef to both Pylos and Boukies in the East Village, admits that she doesn’t go to the trouble of packing the leaves in brine. Instead, she just blanches the fresh leaves and freezes unused ones in zip top bags.
Some people choose a more labor-intensive route of preservation, though.
“There’s a traditional method of preservation in Greece, which is to actually dry them in the sun,” Kochilas explained. “They’re strung, garland-like. It’s actually really beautiful — you rehydrate them.”
Kochilas, whose book Country Cooking of Greece is out this September, says there are also many other uses for the green leaves beyond dolmades.
“One of the best things in the world to make with grape leaves is meatloaf,” she said. “You make meatloaf and you wrap it in grape leaves and you roast it. It is to die for.”
For those who may not have a grape vine readily available, check out Kochilas’ recipe for dolmades made with jarred grape leaves. If you’ve made dolmades with fresh grapes leaves, drop us a note in the comments section with your tips and tricks.
Grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions, and herbs
by Diane Kochilas
- 1 16-ounce jar grape leaves packed in brine
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 large onions, peeled and finely chopped (about 4 cups)
- 1 cup finely chopped scallions
- 1 cup long-grain rice
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup finely chopped mint leaves
- ½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- ⅓ cup finely chopped dill
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Strained juice of 2 lemons
1. Carefully remove the grape leaves from the jar and rinse very well under cold water. Bring a pot of water to a boil, and blanch the leaves, in batches, for 4-5 minutes. Remove to a colander and rinse with cold water.
2. Heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy skillet and add the onions. Toss to coat with oil. Place the lid on the pan, lower the heat, and steam the onions for 5-7 minutes, until wilted.
3. Rinse the rice and drain it as the onions cook. Add the rice to the skillet and stir for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and stir another minute or so. Remove from heat and toss in herbs. Season with salt and pepper, and toss with 2 more tablespoons of olive oil.
4. Separate the ripped grape leaves from the rest. Rub the bottom of a large casserole or stewing pot with two tablespoons of olive oil, and top with a few of the torn leaves, just enough to cover the surface.
5. To expedite the laborious task of rolling up the grape leaves, do it assembly line style: Place, vein-side up, as many leaves as will fit on the kitchen table or counter. Snip off the tough stems and place approximately 1 scant tablespoon (less for the smaller ones) of filling on the bottom center of each leaf. Fold in the sides and roll up from the base, tucking in the sides a little as you go.
6. Place the grape leaves snugly next to one another, seam-side down, inside the pan, in several layers if necessary. Drizzle with remaining olive oil, lemon juice and just enough water to cover. Place a plate inside the pot over the grape leaves as a weight to keep them from opening during cooking. Cover the pot with its lid and simmer the grape leaves over low heat for about 40 minutes, until the leaves are tender and the rice cooked. Remove, cool slightly and serve.