I have come to realize that so many of the foods I was **ahem** “not fond of” were ones that started with less than fresh ingredients. Count dolmades, a Greek delicacy made with grape leaves, as one of them.
Just like with Greek green beans, all it took for me to change my mind about dolmades was a switch from leaves from the jar to fresh, harvested leaves. If you grow your own grapes, or know someone who does, you are just a few easy steps away from having grape leaves that can then be used in making dolmades. If you don’t grow your own, it might just be time to start! (And, yes, a recipe for dolmades will be coming soon!)
There are a few key things you need to be aware of before harvesting any leaves. Be sure they haven’t been sprayed with anything so as not to contaminate your food. You’ll want the bright green leaves that are younger and closer to the ends of the vines and not the tougher, dark and dull green leaves that are older. You’ll also want leaves that are 6-7 inches across so that they will be large enough for use. Smaller leaves are also good, as they can be layered with other leaves.
Usually when I am ready to harvest leaves in the late spring and early summer, it coincides with the time we need to trim back our grape vines anyway. Trimming the vines helps to ensure adequate air flow and reduces risk of fungal disease. From there I pick the leaves that suit my needs and the rest of the vines go into the compost. It is important to not go too crazy picking leaves because they are what carry out photosynthesis, which creates food for the plant, including the sugars needed to make those yummy grapes!
Use small and sharp clippers to make a nice, clean cut at the very base of the leaf. You don’t want any stem remaining as it can tear your leaves when you roll them. Once you have the amount of leaves you want (usually a typical recipe will make 50-60 rolls, but you will need more leaves than one per roll just in case), it is time to clean and blanch.
I like to soak my leaves in a sink full of water and GENTLY swish around to loosen any debris. Drain the sink and repeat. Have a pan filled with water about half way, heated to a boil. Place a small stack of leaves into the water and allow them to sit in the water until you see the color change to brown. Then carefully flip the stack of leaves over and blanch until the other side changes color. I use a couple of slotted spoons, one under and one over the stack of leaves, to help flip them without splashing. Spatulas work well, too. After the leaves have blanched, put them into a bowl of ice water to quickly cool them. Once cooled, put them into a colander to drain. By the way, you can’t skip the blanching step! This softens the leaves so that they can be rolled, otherwise they will crack and tear.
At this point, you can take your stacks of leaves and gently wrap them in plastic, then place in a plastic freezer storage bag and freeze them for later if you don’t want to use them right away. They will last for a very long time. Just be sure to allow them to completely defrost before you try to handle them, otherwise they will be brittle and break apart.