Monday, June 25, 2012

Eating the Bike Path: Grape Leaves

The grape may not be gathered from the birch?
It's all you know the grape, or know the birch.
As a girl gathered from the birch myself
Equally with my weight in grapes, one autumn,
I ought to know what tree the grape is fruit of.

—Robert Frost, "Wild Grapes"

The idea of foraging for wild edibles somewhat romantically evokes trekking deep into the wilderness, but the reality is both more and less romantic: edibles are all around. They are in your backyard, in the park and even growing up through the cracks in the street (which, though tenaciously lovely, you probably don't want to eat). My favorite place to gather wild edibles is the Manhan Rail Trail here in Easthampton. Within a half-mile stretch, you can find chicory, garlic mustard greens, dandelion, blackberries, lamb's quarters, pokeweed, japanese knotweed and grape leaves. There's probably more that I can't readily identify, too. These vary in how accessible they are to eat: blackberries and garlic mustard greens can be eaten on the spot, while pokeweed must be picked very young and boiled (I haven't gotten to eating this one yet, but I have harvested its berries for dyeing purposes). Many of these plants thrive in sunny roadside environments, but best foraging practices recommend collecting edibles at least 20 and preferably 100 feet away from the road. This is what's beautiful about the bike path: it has all of the sunny growing and easy-access benefits of the roadside, but without the exhaust fumes.

Different varieties of Grape leaves, used to wrap up a variety of tasty things in many Mediterranean and Near Eastern cuisines, are hardy growers in a wide variety of climates. While many of these wild cultivars aren't great producers in the fruit department, the leaves of all of them work more or less equally well for stuffing, and can be canned and stored for quite a while. Here's a quick overview of the process:
  1. Pick leaves
  2. Trim, Blanch & Roll
  3. Load into jars with brine
  4. Process jars in water bath
Here's the process in more detail:

1. Pick leaves

Because grapes are a climbing vine, good places to look for them include fences, bushes and trees, though they will climb along the ground in some sunny places. Unfortunately, prime conditions for grapes are also prime conditions for poison ivy, so it's important to be on the lookout for that when grape-hunting.

When identifying grape leaves, the first
thing to looking for is the leaf shape. This will vary somewhat from variety to variety (the three pictured at the top were all found in the same backyard), but they are typically large, 3 or 5 lobed leaves. The other thing to look for are the forked tendrils the vine uses to climb and cling to things. There are species of grape that have single rather than forked tendrils (more in the Southeastern US) but they are reputedly rather less pleasant to eat. The tendrils themselves are edible, with a light, lemony quality like oxalis (wood sorrel or sour grass).

The best time to pick leaves is late spring/early summer, when the leaves are still tender, but if you're not too worried about tender, you can pick them whenever. The best leaves are still fairly bright green, and the rule of thumb I've heard for the best size is about the breadth of a woman's hand, which is a fairly convenient measurement for me. If you do not come equipped with a built-in woman's hand, it's about 6". However, I typically come back with quite a range of sizes.

If you plan to can grape leaves, you want to pick a lot. I pack 30-36 leaves into a pint jar, and it hardly seems worth getting things set up over one jar. Bring a friend: you can pick more and it makes the canning process easier, too.

2. Trim, blanch and roll

Begin by trimming the stems from your leaves using fingernails or scissors. Boil a pot of salted water (traditionally, it was seawater, but in lieu of the Mediterranean, use ¼ c. kosher salt to 1 qt water) and prepare an icewater bath. Now is also a good time to begin boiling a second pot of unsalted water to sterilize jars. Stack leaves in groups of 5 or 6 and, using tongs, dunk in boiling saltwater for about 30 seconds, then cool immediately in icewater. Once cool enough to touch, fold over the top half of the stack and roll up into a cigar-shape. Continue until all leaf-stacks have been blanched and rolled. At this point, the leaves are ready to use and will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for at least a week. Some people also prefer to freeze rather than can them.

3. Load into jars with brine

Because grape leaves are not acidic on their own, they need added acidity to prevent growth of nasty bacteria. Load jars (but not lids yet!) into plain boiling water (1 jar for every 5 or 6 rolls), and prepare a brine to pour over the leaves in the jar. You can use the blanching brine as the basis for this. You will need about 1 cup of brine for each pint jar. To each cup of brine, add ¼ c. lemon juice or a slightly heaped half-teaspoon (5/8 tsp.) of citric acid powder (if making a whole quart of brine, use 1 cup lemon juice or 2½ tsp. citric acid). If you dumped or would rather dump the blanching brine, it had ¼ c. kosher salt for each quart of water, or 1 Tblsp. salt to each cup of water. Bring brine up to a boil again. One at a time, pull out jars from sterilizing bath with tongs. At this time, put a lid and band in (they only need to be in for 45-60 seconds). Load 5 or 6 leaf-rolls into each jar, and top up with hot brine to about ¼ to ½ inch of the rim. Put on lid and band and screw tight.

4. Process jars in a water bath

The last step is to process the jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes to kill any bacteria that may have snuck in. You can use the pot of water you used to sterilize the jars, but make sure you have enough water to cover the jars completely, and put in a vegetable steamer or something else that will keep the jars off the bottom of the pot. Otherwise, you run the risk of the jars cracking. Get creative: once, when canning at a friend's house, we layered the bottom of the pot with a bed of silverware and successfully canned without breakage.

Up soon: Stuffing Grape Leaves

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