Stuffed Grape Leaves, Week Ending 7/5/2020

Hot and humid weather has settled in over the mid-Atlantic. My garden is withering as I hide from the heat inside. As much as I try to promote a lower-energy lifestyle on this blog, July is often too much to bear without air conditioning.

Want to skip the details? …. Jump to Recipe

In the shade of the woods, temps are somewhat less awful. This year, wandering by the creek, I decided to actually use the grape leaves which grow wild in such abundance. I’m not a “real” food blogger so I’ll spare you extensive back story. But I will say, this recipe turned out So. Very. Good.

Harvest grape leaves with no tears or insect damage
Harvest grape leaves with no tears or insect damage

When harvesting wild grape leaves, you have to decide between larger leaves that will hold more stuffing, or smaller leaves which will be more tender. If you go with larger leaves (I usually do), you can remove the veins closest to the stem with a sharp knife to improve the texture. I failed to do this on my first attempt to stuff wild grape leaves and the results were very, um, chewy.

Larger grape leaf (foreground) is tougher, but smaller grape leaves hold less stuffing
Larger grape leaf (foreground) is tougher, but smaller grape leaves hold less stuffing

July brings with it the annual infestation of Japanese beetles, who love to eat grape leaves almost as much as I do! Look for intact, blemish free leaves, and wash thoroughly when you get them home.

And for the love of all that is holy, make sure you pick actual grape leaves! As I mentioned last week, there are a lot of lookalikes in the woods.

Most stuffed grape leaf recipes contain some amount of rice. Since adopting a grain-free diet almost seven years ago, I avoid rice except in the most extreme of circumstances (the rare sushi treat). I had to improvise to develop a recipe that is primal / paleo-friendly and I am very pleased with the results!

Here are step by step photos of stuffing the grape leaves. They aren’t grape, er great photos, but hopefully will give you an idea of the basic approach.

Here is a blanched grape leaf laid out flat.

Blanched grape leaf laid out
Blanched grape leaf laid out

Start by using a sharp knife to remove the veins closest to the stem, and the stem itself. Make as small a cut as possible; the larger the hole is, the harder to cover all the stuffing. This one is slightly too big, honestly. Also be very careful not to tear the leaf. Although if you do, save the torn ones to line the pan while cooking, to prevent the stuffed leaves from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

The stem and toughest veins have been cut out
The stem and toughest veins have been cut out

Place the stuffing on the leaf. The ideal amount will vary depending on the size of the leaf, so it will take some trial and error.

Stuffing placed on the grape leaf
Stuffing placed on the grape leaf

Fold in the sides of the leaf.

Sides of the grape leaf folded over the stuffing
Sides of the grape leaf folded over the stuffing

Start rolling the leaf from the bottom up to the tip, being careful to cover all the stuffing.

Grape leaf being rolled up to encase the stuffing
Grape leaf being rolled up to encase the stuffing

Place the stuffed leaf with the tip face-down to keep it from unrolling while cooking.

Ta da! A stuffed grape leaf, ready to cook
Ta da! A stuffed grape leaf, ready to cook

Ta da!

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how many stuffed grape leaves this recipe will make, because it all depends on how many leaves you collect, and what size. Also, if I were a “real” food blogger, I would have used commercial grape leaves for the rest of these photos because all the stuffed grape leaves were different sizes, which complicated the photography!

Using wild grape leaves results in stuffed leaves of different sizes
Using wild grape leaves results in stuffed leaves of different sizes

Once you get the hang of wrapping the leaves, the work goes quickly. And the results are so delicious, they are worth the time it takes! If you end up with leftover stuffing, you can shape it into a loaf and bake it as you would normally cook a meatloaf, or make it into patties and bake it.

The finished stuffed grape leaves
The finished stuffed grape leaves

I struggled to stage and photograph them… I couldn’t stop eating them! They are even tasty cold the next day, straight from the refrigerator.

For this recipe to be “paleo” rather than “primal”, you would have to leave out all the cheese. Which you could do, but I personally feel the cheese is so integral, it would be a completely different recipe at that point.

To make this recipe low-carb / keto, you can omit the raisins but the flavor profile won’t be nearly as complex. Trust me, it’s worth the carbs!

P.S. – if you use commercially available grape leaves for this recipe, I promise I won’t tell!

Stuffed Grape Leaves Print Recipe

Serves up to four as a main dish or eight as an appetizer, depending on size and quantity of the grape leaves

Ingredients

  • wild grape leaves
  • 1 pound grass fed ground beef 
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup raisins 
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 3/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 15 oz can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

Instructions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the grape leaves for 2 – 3 minutes, using a slotted spoon to keep pushing the leaves back under the water. Move the leaves to a cold water bath to stop cooking. Pat them with a towel to dry thoroughly.

While the leaves are blanching, mix the ground beef, feta cheese, minced onion, raisins, pine nuts, oregano, salt and pepper. 

Once the leaves are cool and dry, use a sharp knife to remove the stem and veins closest to the stem. Place a spoonful of the meat mixture on the leaf. The amount of meat the leaf will hold depends on its size, so some trial and error will be needed. Fold in the sides of the leaf and then roll it up from the base towards the tip. Continue until the stuffing is used up (or you run out of leaves!).

Line a large pan with the grape leaves that are too small or get torn while stuffing. Arrange the stuffed leaves closely together and pour tomato sauce evenly over them. Cover the pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. If any of the leaves start looking dry, use a ladle to spoon some of the tomato sauce on them.  

Continue to simmer the leaves until the beef mixture reaches 160 degrees when tested with an instant read thermometer. Sprinkle the leaves with cheese, and keep on the heat just long enough for the cheese to melt. Serve warm. 

A delicious healthy dish using wild grape leaves - gluten free and primal, with a low-carb keto option
A delicious healthy dish using wild grape leaves – gluten free and primal, with a low-carb keto option

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