My friend in Rockridge was trimming her grape vine last night during our visit. I grabbed the discarded tendrils and stripped off leaves to make stuffed grape leaves. May is a good time to harvest grape leaves for stuffing in most climates, although here in California many of the leaves are already too big and tough. You want the smaller ones, the size of a saucer or a lunch plate. But I kept the largest leaves as well, for a special mushroom dish I got from Elizabeth David (in "An Omelet and a Glass of Wine").
Baked Mushrooms in Grape Leaves
Line a deep casserole with grape vine leaves. (Leila's note - I blanch them and freeze them first for keeping - if using right away, merely blanch 2 minutes in boiling water) Fill the casserole with plain old button mushrooms, either the boring white kind or the nicer brown criminis. Add a strip of bacon or some bits of ham if you like; salt, pepper, a garlic clove or two, and a healthy amount of good olive oil - at least a quarter cup. Cover the top with more vine leaves, then cover the whole casserole with a lid or tin foil. Bake in a 350 degree oven until mushrooms are tender. Serve with crusty bread to mop up all that mushroom liquor. This trick turns the tamest mushrooms into wild flavored delights.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
Harvest unsprayed grape leaves in early summer (May or June). Blanch leaves 2 minutes, drain, store in plastic bags, and freeze. When ready to make stuffed grape leaves, thaw frozen leaves.
If using canned leaves, rinse to remove extra brine.
Saute half a pound ground lamb or ground beef until just brown.
Add to a cup and a half (or so) of uncooked rice. Add a little tomato sauce, dash cinnamon and allspice, and the meat. Stir to mix.
Spread a leaf out, ribs face up, and put a teaspoon of the rice mixture onto the base, near the stem. Spread the rice out into a cigar shape. Fold the leaf ends over rice, then roll towards the middle. Don't roll too tightly - remember the rice has to cook and swell up. Put packet into a large kettle and repeat until you've used up the rice mixture. Stack the leaf packets pretty tightly.
You could put a lamb chop or lamb bone on the bottom of the pot, for flavor. My dad sometimes put in a couple of strips of bacon - very inauthentic but good. Pour in boiling water or stock to cover, bring back to the boil, put a plate on top to keep the packets from bursting, cover the pot and simmer on low for about an hour or until rice is fully cooked. (I hate crunchy rice). Be sure to check regularly and add water if needed.
You may also stir in tomato sauce or paste to the boiling water before adding.
Towards the end of this process, strew chopped garlic over the top. At the end, squeeze lemon juice and drizzle olive oil over all.
Stuffed grape leaves are served hot or room temperature, alone or with dollops of yogurt.
This recipe may be made vegetarian by substituting chickpeas for sauteed ground meat. You must then use tomato sauce in the cooking water, add lots of garlic, and use spices.