The other day I was talking to my aunt in Baku over skype and she asked me what I had cooked for the day.
“Dolma,” I exclaimed.
“From canned grape leaves?”
“Why? From fresh,” I said happily.
“What? Fresh leaves?” Clearly, my aunt was shocked. “This time of year?”
I teased her saying how our grapevine is sprawling and how we pick its leaves often and make dolma and how delicious dolma from fresh grape leaves is (which she knows, of course, but I got bitten by a bragging bug at that very time), and how I preserve the fresh leaves that continue to grow abundantly, to use them in winter. My aunt sighed said we were lucky. But she will rejoice soon too, as she lives in a grape rich country where fresh grape leaves are especially flavorful.
This is how fresh grape leaves are kept fresh for years – packed inside plastic bottles! I brought these leaf-packed bottles from Baku – courtesy of some of my wonderful relatives.
You see, spring is being late this year in Azerbaijan. I hear it is still chilly and the days of making dolma from fresh vine leaves are lying far ahead, as there is just not enough sunshine to wake up the vines’ from a long winter’s sleep. Here in Long Beach, on the other hand, spring has come long ago, although the days are way chillier for a typical California spring. But still, the grapes are being nice to us and providing us with enough leaves to keep our ever-growing dolma appetites sated. The grapevine, by the way, is courtesy of my father-in-law who planted it for us for both grapes and leaves, and we can’t thank him enough for this.
Here’s another way to store fresh grape leaves – pack them inside ziploc bags and freeze!
When the dolma making day comes, which happens haphazardly when I suddenly feel I can squeeze in some time from my busy schedule to roll mounds of leaves, I mobilize the family to pick the leaves for me as I prepare the filling. They do a good job, the kids and Murat. They pick young, tender leaves that have no blemish. I blanch the leaves and stuff them with the herb-packed meat filling, then cook the stuffed bundles until they are tender and succulent. Then we all indulge in one of the most delicious culinary inventions in the world. Dolma. We all love it. Big time.
Good thing is dolma has no season—we can have it any time of year. I make it in winter, too, when fresh leaves are not available. I either use canned leaves that I buy from Middle Eastern stores, or better yet, I use fresh grape leaves preserved in special ways. Yes, fresh leaves in the middle of winter! How and where do the leaves stay fresh? Let me tell you.
There are two ways to do so.
# 1 – Preserving Fresh Grape Leaves in Plastic Bottles.
In Azerbaijan, empty plastic soda/water bottles are not recycled (sigh), but neither they are wasted when fresh grape leaves are available. They are packed with young tender leaves that keep fresh for a very long time, think as long as 2 years! In this method, the leaves are stacked together in batches of 3-5, then gently rolled and shaped into bundles. The bundles are dropped inside the empty plastic bottles and a thin stick is used to push the bundles inside to make room for more. Once filled up, the bottles are tightly secured with caps and off the bottles go in the pantry. When dolma is to be made, the bottles are cut in half and the precious leaves are revealed. Dolma is then made just as it would be with fresh leaves.
Grape leaves, stacked neatly inside a ziplock bag, ready to go in the freezer.
# 2 – Preserving (by freezing) Fresh Grape Leaves in Ziploc Bags.
Here’s my method that I use in the U.S. In this method, the leaves are stacked together in batches to fit a ziplock bag then packed flat inside the bag. The sealed bags are then sent to the freezer. Before using, the leaves are either defrosted in the refrigerator or plunged into warm water and removed immediately.
So if you have a grapevine in your backyard, don’t waste the leaves—use them to make dolma and store some for winter.
Here’s Meltem, mobilized to pick fresh grape leaves from our backyard for mama’s dolma.