Grape Leaves

Summer 2003

Growing grapes provides not just fruits for wines and jellies, but leaves for stuffing as well. Illustration from Handbook of Plant and Floral Ornament from Early Herbals, by Richard G. Hatton, Dover Publications, N.Y., 1960.

By Jean Ann Pollard

The Norse tale of Leif Eriksson’s epic voyage across the Atlantic to “Vinland” circa 995 – 996 AD reports that the adventurers “found vines and grapes” in America. The saga also reports that “No frost came in winter and the grass withered only a little.”

So where did they land?

According to Farley Mowatt in his book Westviking, determining “Leif’s actual landfall on the eastern coast of North America is a complex procedure requiring the analysis of much data.” While others argue for points farther south, his choice is Newfoundland’s Baccalieu Island at the entrance to Trinity Bay.

Newfoundland seems a bit northerly for grapes, argue some scholars, but the Norse were traveling during the so-called Little Climatic Optimum – a period between 1000 and 1200 AD when vineyards in western Europe were being cultivated farther north than their present limits by perhaps 4 or 5 degrees – and, according to Mowatt, it’s “a widespread misapprehension that Newfoundland has a cold, even subarctic climate. The truth is that the average winter temperatures of the southern and eastern coastal regions of the island are much higher than those of any other place in eastern Canada, and even of most parts of the New England states as far south as northern Massachusetts.”

Wherever the Vikings found grapes – and some folks favor the coast of Maine – they would be prized. According to J. I. Rodale in his 1967 How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method, “Some type of grape is native to almost every portion of the temperate and many of the subtropical portions of the world.” And according to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the grape has been cultivated for 6000 years, perhaps first by Egyptians. Greeks and Romans developed new varieties, the Romans introduced it to the colder regions of Europe, and today about 60 species are grown on 25 million acres worldwide, making it “one of the most heavily cultivated fruit crops.”

Several varieties were found in America by early settlers. Although they tried for many years to grow samples brought with them from Europe, cultivation proved impossible except in greenhouses or under the most artificial conditions. Only when they gave up and turned to native species did American grape growing succeed.

The type of grape met in New England was Vitis labrusca, the Eastern American or fox grape called the Concord. With slip-skins and a comparatively short ripening period, it’s tart, splendid for jelly or wine-making, and – as anyone from the Middle East knows – its leaves are fine for stuffing. In fact, they’re extolled by wild foods forager Bradford Angier for their “delicate acid savor.” “To use them for cooking,” he advises, they “should be gathered in the spring when they have achieved their growth but are still tender.”

But one mustn’t worry: The darker green, older leaves of July are fine – especially for preserving. And while pickled grape leaves are purchasable in any supermarket, when you gather and “can” them yourself, you can be sure to avoid contamination from pesticides or other chemicals.

Pickled Grape Leaves

(about 2 quarts)

Young grape leaves are suggested for this recipe because pickling tends to toughen them.

Sterilize: 2 1-quart canning jars and lids according to the manufacturer’s directions. (Please refer to the Ball Company’s Blue Book if you’re new to canning.)

Rinse: 50 to 70 young grape leaves

Into a large pan pour: 8 cups water.

Add and bring to a boil: 1/4 cup kosher or canning salt

Then add: your grape leaves

Boil for 30 seconds and drain. Let the leaves stand until cool enough to handle. Place them, shiny-sides up, in stacks of 10 or 15 with the largest leaves on the bottom. Roll up each stack and tie it with clean, cotton string. Pack the stacks vertically into your hot, sterilized jars. Trim the edges of the rolls to fit if necessary.

Wash carefully and cut into wedges: several lemons

Into your jars of grape leaves, tuck: 2 or 3 lemon wedges

Into a large saucepan pour:

3 cups water

3 cups apple cider vinegar

Bring to a boil. Pour the boiling water/vinegar over the leaves in your jars, covering them completely. Place on caps and screw on hot bands as directed.

Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Preserved Grape Leaves Stuffed with Garbanzo Beans, Rice & Lentils

The following recipe from Mary Laird Hamady’s Lebanese Mountain Cooking has been slightly revised.

The night before:

Carefully pick over and remove any stones or debris from 1/2 cup dry garbanzo beans.

Rinse well. Cover with 2 cups water.

Soak them all night.

Dinner day:

1. Cook for 20 minutes, or till just tender, in the soak water: the soaked garbanzos.

Drain. (Remove the skins if you’re a purist; otherwise, merely crush.)

2. Drain: 1 quart of your own or commercially canned grape leaves.

Soak in cold water for about 30 minutes, then drain and rinse again until all salt is removed.

Drape the leaves over a colander to drain. If necessary, snip off stems to 1/2 inch.

3. Soak together for 30 minutes:

1 cup water

1 cup short-grain rice


4. Combine:

1 cup green lentils

2-1/2 cups water

Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until just tender.


5. Mix together:

1-1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. ground allspice

1 Tbsp. sea salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups finely chopped onion

Add and stir in:

1 cup freshly chopped parsley

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Add and combine well:

the soaked rice, the cooked lentils, the cooked garbanzos.

6. To stuff, lay one grape leaf, smooth side down, stem end facing you, on a smooth surface. Place 1 large tablespoon of filling in the center of the leaf. Roll the stem end over the filling, fold the sides to the center, and roll toward the tip, making a neat package.

7. Line the bottom of a heavy 3-quart pot with torn or broken grape leaves.

8. As you finish rolling a leaf, place it on the broken leaves in tight parallel rows, loose flap down. Change the direction of each layer so that one layer is north-south, the next, east-west.

9. Once all the stuffed grape leaves are in the pot, cover the top layer with more broken leaves.

Place an inverted plate smaller than the pot on top to keep the stuffed leaves intact and submerged during cooking.

10. Add: enough water to cover the inverted plate.

Cover the pot and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and cook for 1 hour.

11. During the last 30 minutes, add 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice.

12: Before removing stuffed grape leaves from the pot, cool them to room temperature and drizzle with:

extra-virgin olive oil (optional)

OR cool and turn the pot of packets upside down on a platter before drizzling with olive oil. Remove loose leaves.

13. Serve cold as appetizers or part of a main meal with wedges of lemon.

Note: Sliced green peppers could be layered with the torn grape leaves on the pot’s bottom; small green peppers can be stuffed with the filling and cooked along with the grape leaves.

Note: Fresh leaves can be used for this dish. For easier handling, steam them a minute or two until limp.

For recipes using grape leaves to wrap small game birds, see Gibbons’ and Angier’s books.


Angier, Bradford, Feasting Free on Wild Edibles, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Penn., 1966 & 1969.

Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, David McKay Co., Inc., N.Y., 1962.

Hamady, Mary Laird. Lebanese Mountain Cooking, David R. Godine, Boston, 1987.

McGee, Harold, On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y., 1984.

Mowat, Farley, Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America, Minerva Press, 1965.

Rodale, J. I., How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method, Rodale Books, Emmaus, Penn., 1967.

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