Ingredient: Grape Leaves
May 22, 2012, Updated Jan 23, 2023
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I’ve got a secret. Or at least I used to have one, and like my mother and my aunts and my grandmothers, I carried it around in my purse until spring, right around this same time every year when bloom was the big event each day and the unfurling of tender, young grape leaves was awaited with great expectation.
There is a short window when wild grape leaf vines offer up their leaves in a state that makes them perfect for stuffing and rolling into little savory, lemony fingers. If the leaves are picked too early, they’re not strong or large enough. Picked too late, and the offense is that of fibrous, veiny leaves and your inability to have discerned this makes you somewhat less of a cook, of a woman.
The secret, at least in our town in Michigan (and I’d love to know if the same holds true for you), was where to find the vines in order to pilfer the leaves. Since this was always on someone else’s property, the picking was done with hushed voices and glances over the shoulder. One such place was not out in the country, but downtown, somewhere near the old Abood law offices, across a parking lot against a fence. Cousin Jim picked here not that long ago, I’m told. Close as we are, he is vague about the precise whereabouts of said vine.
But it seems that the quest for fresh grape leaves has waned with the passing of the baton to my generation. There aren’t coveted spots that we hit each spring, and we’ve accepted jarred leaves as the way it goes. I’ve never understood why every Lebanese yard doesn’t offer up grape leaf vines as profusely as it does na’na (mint) or tomatoes. But like anything else, I suppose the problem here is mine: if I want it to happen, I need to make it so.
Grape leaves fit for stuffing come from wild vines that do not bear fruit. Can regular grape vines, like those cultivated for wine grapes, be used? I have two goals: one, to find out once and for all what the answer is to the wild versus cultivated question (Michigan State University is in my family’s backyard, after all, where agriculture is our pride and joy). All of the Sittis say wild-only. Much of what I’ve read says the cultivated are edible but just not suitable, because they become tougher and thicker over time (the time that makes the grapes so right for wine). If you know the answer, by all means weigh in.
That way my second goal, which is to get the wild vines growing in the yards of any home in my family (and yours) that will agree to it, will be informed by whether we can start from seed or if we must transplant. I want to get the planting going because there is nothing so delicate, beautiful, and delicious as grape leave rolls made with leaves picked at the right moment in the spring by your own hand. Aunt Hilda picked them by the many hundreds and kept them in packs in her freezer to make throughout the year. It was her pride and her joy to arrive with a big pot of grape leaf rolls for any special dinner. She knew, as we all do, that commercial jarred leaves are inferior because they are so huge and can be veiny and tough.
But for the rest of us who do not as of yet have a vine in the yard or a stash of leaves in the freezer, find a jar in a Middle Eastern specialty shop, or online. There is more to come this week about how to prepare and roll the leaves…and also about my very special jar of tender young grape leaves, with a purple lid. It came from Lebanon in my luggage, and is so precious I had to struggle with my desire to cook with the leaves and my desire to save them, for posterity.