In a moment of extreme enthusiasm one May I planted two Thompson seedless grape vines in my backyard in Oakland, California. That was because stuffed grape leaves, from my Armenian heritage, are a true comfort food for me, right up there with mac and cheese and homemade tacos from my mother’s Southwest side of the family. As the vines grew, a world of wonder unfolded throughout the year, year after year.
The slightly tart spring tendrils, like pea sprouts or young fava bean leaves, are perfect for salads or almost anything that would like a touch of tender green to garnish a dish or add spark to a salad. In early summer come the fully grown leaves, my point for planting the vines in the first place. While they are still small-veined and supple, I cut the leaves from the vine, soften them in a simple salt brine, and use them to roll my beloved grape leaf sarmas. In full summer their fruit is delicious, though I must say I have never had a prodigious amount, never enough to brag about. No matter, in the fall, the leaves turn beautiful autumn red/gold colors and are perfect for decorating festive tables. By early winter, the vine’s wondrous gifts have seemingly disappeared, sequestered within the vine, out of sight until next spring. Except, the wood, which I prune and set aside to dry until it’s time to fire a barbecue for spring lamb. As the world turns, that coincides with the new tendrils appearing on the vines and I use those for garnishing the platter.
In a shaggy dog story kind of twist to the tale, it turns out that I actually prefer using jarred grape leaves for making sarmas. They are available year round; just open the jar and make up a batch of sarma, winter, spring, summer, or fall, whenever the yen comes. I prefer Yergat brand, from the Central Valley of California, where my Armenian family first put down stakes in the New World and continues to farm today.
Here is a recipe for my latest innovation, a vegetarian one, on the endless possibilities of what can be wrapped in grape leaves.
Brown Rice, Pine Nut, and Currant Stuffing for Grape Leaves
Makes enough for 65 to 70 grape leaves
3 cups cooked brown rice, preferably organic
1/ 2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/ 3 cup currants
1/ 2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1/ 3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped lemon peel, including the rind
1/ 4cup fresh lemon juice
1/ 4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/ 2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/ 4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
65 to 70 brined grape leaves (about one 16-ounce jar)
1. Combine all the ingredients except the grape leaves, in a bowl and mix together with your hands.
2. Drain the grape leaves, spread them out on a counter, and trim off what is left of the stems. Place 2 teaspoons or so in the middle of each leaf, depending on the size of the leaf. Starting at the bottom, roll up each leaf, tucking in the sides, to make a cylindrical packet enclosing the stuffing. Place the stuffed leaves in very tightly packed layers in a medium pot.
3. Cover the leaves with a plate that will fit inside the pot. Set a weight, such as a large can of tomatoes, on top to keep the leaves submerged. Add water to cover by 1 inch and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to maintain a brisk simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and carefully pour off the water, leaving the sarmas in the pot. Set aside until completely cool and firmed up.
5. When ready to serve, gently transfer the sarmas to a platter and accompany with a bowl of yogurt on the side.