If you have access to grapevines—in a vineyard, growing on an arbor in your yard, or growing wild—you have a treasure trove of taste at hand. Grape leaves are a staple in Greek cooking. Think of the traditional dish stuffed grape leaves, or "dolmades," served in Greek homes and restaurants. Pick grape leaves fresh off the vine in late spring or early summer when the tender leaves are plentiful. Then, use them in Greek recipes or preserve and store them for later use.
Depending on your climate, pick grape leaves in late spring (May or June). Select whole leaves, free of damage, from vines that have not been sprayed with pesticides. Leaves should display a light green color and have a supple texture. Seek out the best picks just below the new growth at the top of the plant and close to the fruit. To sustainably harvest them, leave the first 3 leaves following any new growth at the end of the vine, and then pick the next two to three leaves. After that, move on to the next stem.
Grape leaves should be at least the size of the palm of your hand, large enough to wrap around a filling. Leaves from Sultana grape (aka "Thompson Seedless") are perfect for cooking with because they are hardier and more flexible than other varieties. Still, if the plant you choose has broad enough leaves, it should work well.
To prepare leaves for blanching, use a sharp knife or scissors to cut the stem off of each leaf. Then, rinse well under cold running water.
To blanch, boil water in a teakettle. Place your leaves in a pot or heavy bowl, cover them with boiling water, and then let them sit for about 2 minutes or until soft, but not mushy. Alternately, you can bring a large pot of water to a boil, turn off the heat, add the leaves, and let them sit for the same amount of time. Using tongs, transfer blanched leaves from the hot water into an ice bath. Once cool, drain and squeeze out all of the water, pat the grape leaves dry with paper towels, and use them in your favorite recipe.
If you plan to harvest leaves and use them at a later date, freezing is just one preservation option. For this method, don't rinse or wash your leaves. Instead, wipe off any moisture and debris with a dry paper towel, lay each leaf on top of one another, and package the amount needed for one recipe into one sealable plastic bag. Remove as much air as you can from the bag, zip it closed, and freeze your leaves flat. Label the bag with the date and number of leaves contained inside.
Grape leaves need at least 2 months in the freezer to tenderize them. Take care to place them in an area where they will not break when frozen. To use your leaves, simply defrost them in a colander under cool running water and use them without blanching.
Storing Leaves in Brine
Fresh grape leaves can also be preserved in brine, similar to pickles. For this technique, start with 2 to 2 1/2 pounds (or more) of tender young leaves. Make your brine by combining 1 pound of Kosher sea salt in 1 gallon of water. Fill a large canning jar 2/3 full with brine, roll each leaf into a tight cylinder (like a cigarette), and place it carefully into the jar, taking care to pack all the leaves tightly together. Place the lid on the jar to seal, making sure all of the leaves are completely submerged in the liquid. Continue with the rest of your leaves and jars. Label your jars with the date and the number of leaves inside, and store them in a cool, dry place.
To use the leaves, remove them from the jars one day ahead of time, rinse them under cold running water, and blanch or prepare them per recipe directions.
Wipe off your leaves with a paper towel to remove any debris. Using a needle, run a thread through the vine leaves right above the stem attachment. Hang bunches of leaves in a dark, cool place to dry them (similar to the method used for drying herbs and flowers). Once dried, pack bunches (still tied together and enough for one recipe) in plastic bags and store them for future use. When you're ready to cook, hold the bunch by the string and dip each leaf in boiling water for about 2 to 3 minutes. The color will turn a light green. Use as directed in your recipe.