I spent the last week in Canada, where, in fear of roaming charges and in an effort to relax and disconnect, cellphones are turned off and computers left at home. This annual trip to the little wooden cottage is a tradition which began with my great-grandparents, and each generation since has spent summers in the same way. The way to the cottage is surrounded by vines, cattails, sumac, tall grass, tiger lilies, wildflowers, milkweed, chicory, catnip, wild raspberries and those plants are home to deer, ducks, frogs, snakes, herons, rabbits, and monarchs.
I grew up playing under the sumac, braving my way through grass as tall as myself to discover the crab apple tree. I watched caterpillars turn into monarchs on the milkweed, and learned where to adventure to find the biggest patch of juicy wild raspberries.
But even after 25 summer trips to the same piece of land, there is more to learn from this little corner of nature, and more edible bits of plants to find. This year my mother told me about the wild grape leaves her mother used to cook, stuffed with beef and covered in tomato sauce. I loved the idea of using the grape leaves, which are plentiful along the entire road, although the fruit they grow are sour and not terribly tasty. Using lentils instead of beef, I made my own version of my grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves in tomato sauce.
Please remember when foraging for grape leaves to be certain of your identification, and know that there are not harmful chemicals sprayed on them which would make the leaves dangerous to consume. Pick leaves that are about the size of your hand (smaller will be hard to stuff, and larger ones can get to tough), and have not already been an insect’s dinner.
Once the leaves have been picked, carefully trim the stem and center spine. Wash them and leave them to soak in cool water. If you have extra leaves, consider blanching them quickly before leaving them to marinate in oil- this will make it so you are able to use them without further cooking the next time. Make rice and lentils for the filling, and mix in the rest of the ingredients used to flavor. I used dried parsley in this dish, as that is what was available. Although I haven’t tried it, I imagine fresh parsley would be even better.
The sauce we used was a lightly enhanced can of tomatoes. It was simple, and delicious on this dish but is by no means the only tomato sauce that will work- any sauce you love will shine in this dish, just make sure you have about 28 oz. for it to cover the leaves.
The most fun part of the stuffed leaves is the folding. I use the technique I learned years ago when part of my job involved making burritos. Bring the top and base of the leave together to form a little tube, and then take one side and roll it across, squeezing it gently to make a neat and compact little tube. If you are having trouble, you can always use a little less filling and that should make folding easier.
Make sure to put a little bit of the sauce down in the pan before the grape leaves- it will stop them from sticking or burning in the oven. Then add your stuffed leaves, tightly side-to-side. The recipe made another 10 leaves, which I put in a separate pan and made lovely seconds after this first tray was gone.
Cover with sauce and bake in the oven. They took about 40 minutes to cook- you can tell they are finished when the sauce has bubbled and started to dry at points, and the grape leaves have lost their rigor and are flexible and delicate to the touch.
Stuffed Wild Grape Leaves in Tomato Sauce
- 28 large, hole-free, fresh grape leaves
- 1 ½ cups of dried brown rice
- 1 ½ cups of dried lentils
- Half a cup of olives (I used kalamata)
- 1 small onion
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 TBSP dried parsley
- 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper, to taste
For the sauce- use a favorite tomato sauce, or you can follow the simple tomato sauce below. Try to have about 28 oz. of sauce total.
- 28 ounce can of plum tomatoes
- 1-2 TBSP olive oil
- 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- 3 cloves of garlic
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. Wash the grape leaves and trim the center spine down before leaving to soak in cool water. Cook the rice and lentils as directed on the package.
2. While the rice and lentils are cooking, cut the olives into small pieces, dice the onion and mince the garlic. If using this sauce recipe, blend all the ingredients for the sauce together and set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Mix the cooked lentils and rice with the onion, garlic, olives, parsley, vinegar and salt and pepper. The ingredients should stick together well.
4. Put a little bit of sauce down on the bottom of a glass baking pan. Depending on the size of your pans you might need to use more than one.
5. Place a leaf shiny side up, and scoop some of the filling onto the center- 1 TBSP or more, depending on the size of the leaf and your grape leaf rolling confidence. Fold the top to the base of the stem and press gently. Take one of the open sides and fold over, to roll the leaf into a small cylinder, squeezing it gently into place. Put into the pan and repeat with all of the other leaves, packing them directly next to each other in the pan.
6. Pour the rest of the tomato sauce over the leaves, making sure there are no places left dry. Cover with foil and bake for around 40 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the leaves feel soft and pliable.