Anyone who has tried vegetable gardening knows just how satisfying it is to harvest your own food. However, I find the harvest even more satisfying when I don’t have to do any of the gardening leading up to harvest time. That’s right! I’m talking about picking wild foods, specifically grape leaves.
These big, sturdy leaves are a staple of Greek cooking. People love to use them for dolmades, lamb and rice rolls or my favorite—grape leaves stuffed with lemony tabbouleh. Not only are wild or homegrown grape leaves healthier than store-bought, but they’re far less expensive. Want to know how to harvest and preserve them? Let’s get started!
Grow Your Own or Pick Wild?
If you grow your own grapes—which I don’t—you can most certainly harvest the leaves from your vines. However, even if I did grow my own grapes, I would probably still harvest wild grape leaves. It boils down to personal preference. I prefer wild grape leaves because the leaves have a stronger tart flavor. The advantage to domestic grape leaves is that, while the flavor is mild, the leaves are normally much larger. And, in your well-maintained garden, they’re a little easier to find and pick, too!
Harvesting Grape Leaves
Whether you choose to pick your own grape leaves or harvest from wild sources, the timing and method is the same. Most of the sources I have seen tell you to pick the grape leaves in the spring—May or June for Ohioans. However, I harvest mine at the end of July or in August. There are two reasons why I break from the norm:
As to the actual harvesting process, take along pruning shears or sturdy scissors. When you cut the leaves from the vine, leave 1/2 to 1 inch of the stem behind to make preservation easier and to prevent the leaves from splitting when you cook them.
A Note about Identifying Wild Grapes
Here in Ohio, wild grapevines are everywhere. You’ll find them in the woods, in fields that haven’t been mowed for a couple of years—like I said, everywhere. The easiest place to pick them, however, is along the edges of a forest. The grape vines tend to infest the rose bushes and other shrubs that grow along the wood’s edge, giving you a nice selection of easy-to-reach leaves.
As you pick grape leaves, there is one dangerous lookalike to watch for: moonseed. All parts of the moonseed plant are considered poisonous, so if you think that you’ve picked some, throw the leaves away!
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to tell the difference between the two kinds of leaves. Grape leaves are spade-shaped, and they have serrated leaves that are often lobed. Moonseed leaves have a similar shape, but without the serrated edges. Here are pictures to help you tell them apart:
PICK THESE: Tasty Grape Leaves
NOT THESE: Poisonous Moonseed Leaves
Preserving Your Grape Leaves
My favorite way to preserve grape leaves is to can them, but that is the one thing I won’t show you how to do. There are many canning recipes online, but there is no USDA-approved safe canning method for grape leaves, so any canning recipe is at your own risk. Hopefully the USDA will test a recipe soon, and then we can all enjoy shelf-stable canned grape leaves!
For now, there is safe alternative: Freezing your grape leaves.
To freeze grape leaves, start by making sure they’re thoroughly rinsed. Then blanch them in a brine solution made from 4 cups of water and 1 cup of salt. Add the leaves to the boiling brine in batches of 12 or less. Leave them in the brine until it comes back to a boil—or for just a few seconds if the brine never stops boiling.
When you remove the leaves from the brine, either plunge them into ice water or rinse them under cold water immediately to stop the cooking process. Stack the leaves in layers of paper towels or parchment paper to keep them separated and freeze them in an airtight plastic bag.
Harvesting wild grape leaves is a rewarding way to stock your pantry (or freezer) with wholesome, healthy food for the winter. Now that you know how to do it, you can start enjoying Greek treats at a fraction of the cost of store-bought grape leaves. Next week, I’ll share my favorite grape leaf recipe – grape leaves stuffed with tabbouleh.