Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Grapes, Vines & Dolmas, Cooling Fare

Do you grow grapes? Have you ever wondered how to make brined grape leaves? Did you know grape leaves have been used in herbal healing for millennia? Come along with me on a little excursion and find out why you might want to grow grapes for food and drink and enjoy the vines as well. Yes, there is the wine which goes without saying. And, then, there are the vines themselves. The twisting, turning entwining nature of their growth habit; their water seeking, mineral loving, deep rootedness. Dancing with them is a full on pleasure for this gardener. Today we're going to explore grape leaves and how to use them in daily life.

Okanagan Riesling grapevine
This season promises exceptional bounty for the Okanagan Riesling growing up and over one of many arbors at RavenCroft Garden. A few years back several arbors rose from the earth here. A phase of three dimensional gardening brought fragrant honeysuckles, grapes and roses to the garden. Plant life lifted from earth, a pleasure to walk beneath and beautiful points of transition from one room of the garden to another, a place to inhale a cool, plant infused breath before walking on. Much as we move from one stage of our life to another or one part of the day to another is augmented by creating a structure for life to move within.

Understanding how the vine grows and, as a gardener, how I can direct its life flow to embrace the essence of grape and create a bountiful harvest of fruit is a study in approach. This season there is such an abundance of fruit, thinning is necessary for grape ripening. Early spring rains and a warm start to summer boosted the fruiting and flowering bushes, trees and shrubs in the Snoqualmie Valley toward abundant yields.

What is so exciting about grapevines and leaves beyond observing their growth habit and patterns? In my experience and the tales of countlesss others, they are a proven platform on which food, drink and medicine dance. On a deep level, food is a strong thread in weaving a healthy life and cultivating health just makes sense. 
Green grapes forming
Grapes hold deep nutrition in their very essence. The leaves are cooling, mineral rich and tasty. They have a sour taste with a hint of bitter. Using taste as a guide, the tonic effect of grape leaves supports clearing congestion, reducing inflammation and clearing heat at the blood level. Grape leaves have been used to assuage fever, inflammations and infections for eons of time in areas where they naturally grow and, today, grapes are found around the globe. When Viking travelers visited this continent they described the land as Vinland, the land of vines, referring to the abundance of wild grapes they found. 

Along with an interesting history, science is investigating some of the constituents that have a dynamic effect on the body. Two of note are anthocyanidins, which tone tissue in veins and capillaries improving circulation, and quercetrin, a flavonoid and structural protein known to reduce inflammation and build a strong collagen matrix throughout the body, necessary for healthy skin and connective tissue. In other words, adding grape leaves to your diet helps hold you together, allows your blood to flow freely and cools excess heat in your body. As with all plants, there are too many constituents to unravel so embracing the practice of using whole plants allows body and plant to find the best way to dance together to support health.

Cool shade under the grape arbor
From a nourishing and tonifying perspective, the benefits are on-going and increase with regular ingestion! As an herbal food with minimal toxicity, you can  enjoy them as you would any other food.

Once blanched and brined, the flavor of the leaves shifts to tangy and bitterness softens. Grape leaves are perfect for wrapping grains, meat and combinations thereof,  to create hand food. I have a penchant for doing all kinds of activities with my hands and eating food is one of my favorite.

Here are two recipes to get you started with grape leaves as a contributing actor in your cast of thousands on your journey in a life filled with optimum nourishment.

Brined Grape Leaves
From vine to brine

If you are not growing a grapevine, walk around your neighborhood and see if anyone in your area has one. Grapes are vigorous growers and when I've been without vines, people have  shared their abundance willingly. By the time the vines have leaves large enough to brine, they are ready for pruning to encourage fruit production. A great way to meet your neighbors!

First, imagine how many grape leaves you will use in a 1 year cycle.  I like to brine at least 5 pints of leaves for later use. I pack the leaves in bundles of 5 with approximately 11 bundles per pint, yielding 275 brined leaves to use throughout the year.

Select leaves the size of your hand or a bit larger. Cut them from the stem right at the juncture of the leaf so no stem is left on the leaf. Little bits of stem cause tears during processing and rolling later.

4 qts water
4 oz kosher salt
100-200 grape leaves
3-4 pint canning jars with sealable lids

1.  Place water and salt in kettle bring to boil then turn to simmer
2.  Stack grape leaves, by size, in piles of 5 (more than 5 are difficult to work with when stuffing)
3.  Set piles in hot brine with a weight to hold under for 30-60 seconds (I use a potato masher as the weight use creative license here)
4.  Remove from hot brine, carefully place in pan with cold water keeping stacks together
5.  Remove from cold water and drain on rack. Next, roll stacks into cigar shaped tubes on a level surface and put into pint jars. The tubes will be too long for the jar so after jar is filled, bend them all over in one direction to fit.
6.  When all jars are filled, bring brine back to boil and pour into each jar to fill. Cap and screw bands on jars. Turn upside down to seal. When cool place in refrigerator or store in cool cellar. 

Fresh leaves, brined rolled leaves and dolmas
Tasty Dolma Recipe

3 c. cooked rice
1 c. cooked ground meat (I used a left over pork chop ground in a hand-crank  meat grinder)
3 T fresh mint, minced
3 T fresh chives, minced
1/3 c. fresh parsley, minced
1 T ground cinnamon
1/3 c. raisins soaked in 1/3 c. orange liquor
1/3 c. almonds, chopped
1 tsp salt
2 lemons, juiced
3/4 c. olive oil

Mix all ingredients in a bowl, add olive oil and lemon juice. Let rest while you drink a cup of refreshing herbal infusion. Then, stuff 1-T mixture onto each grape leaf at leaf junction with leaves vein side up. Tuck sides in and roll toward top of leaf. Place rolled dolmas in glass dish, pour more lemon juice over finished dolmas and refrigerate. Enjoy!

Wines, brines, brandied cherries, kim chi, beets, jams! 
It's summer time and the livn' is easy!
Sign up today! RavenCroft Garden's Out of the Box Food Camp is August 8th and 9th. Verjus, Ode to Joy Vass cheese, Audrey's Fermented Crock Dills and so much more await you. Your curiosity will reach new zeniths in the flumdiddley kitchen school, as EagleSong, folk herbalist and artisan food maker with 4 decades of practice takes you on a journey you'll want to remember!!!

Until next time, go outside and thank the sun, well, for everything! Then, cool off with a feast of dolmas! Enjoy!!!

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