Ask Peter: Preserving and using vine leaves
I have always wondered when a recipe says vine leaves, can they be from any vine? I have two different vines of yummy red grapes in my garden and use the leaves for decoration, but have always been too chicken to use them in food.
Thank you, Ann
Lucky you, having yummy grapes in your garden. I have a vine that grew an awful lot this year, unfortunately fruitless, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed it’ll fruit next year. Using your grape leaves is a wonderful way to do some urban foraging — very Nordic!
The key with using the leaves is to make sure they’re blemish-free, undamaged, have not been sprayed or come into contact with pollution or toxic sprays. Pick them at the right time of the year — late spring is the best time to harvest the leaves to use straight away. You can also preserve them for later in the year. They should be supple.
My friends in Turkey tend to pick only those two or three from the bunches of grapes (or where they’d be if you hadn’t picked them) and the last two or three leaves at the end of each vine. One leaf, of hand size, makes one dolmades or similar “package”, so you only need an average-sized vine to make enough treats for a dinner party. And it’s pretty cool to be able to say you’ve foraged in your garden and used an ingredient most people wouldn’t know what to do with.
Pick them, discarding any that aren’t perfect, and cut their stalks off — but don’t cut the leaf at all. Gently rinse in a large bowl of cool water. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add the leaves (no more than 25 at once), gently stir and turn the heat off. After five minutes (less for smaller leaves) carefully remove and they’re ready to use. If you want to preserve them for use later in the year you have a couple of options.
One involves brining them, but to be honest I once had a disastrous bubbling vine leaf alien in the pantry, so I’ll avoid telling you about this. Instead, use your freezer.
If you’re going to use them within one or two months, blanch as above and drain well, pat dry with a kitchen cloth and lay on top of each other. Put into a sealable bag (up to 30 at a time) and press firmly flat before sealing the bag. The less air the better. At this point they are ready to freeze. If you’re going to use them after 10 weeks you can avoid the blanching, as the freezer helps to tenderise them (bizarrely, a freezer can also tenderise squid, if left for more than a fortnight, but that’s another story). When you defrost the leaves make sure you do it in the fridge, ideally overnight, as a gradual defrost will mean less damage.
Once defrosted, rinse gently under running water before using.
Look for vine leaves brined, in jars, in speciality food stores.
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