The “art” of rolling leaves (grapes, Swiss chard, cabbage etc.) is common to the Middle East where leaves are served either as a main course or part of the starters (mezze). Stuffed grape leaves are called “dolmathes” by the Greek, and “yaprak” (meaning leaves) by the Turkish which is at the origin of the name “yabrak” used by the Syrians and Lebanese.
The tradition of harvesting and cooking grape leaves in Lebanon is very old. Starting mid-May and until mid-June, tender and vibrant green grape leaves are harvested. Pesticide-free leaves are collected and their stem is trimmed with scissors, a knife or pruning shears to avoid tearing of the leaves. Leaves big enough to hold a teaspoon of stuffing are those that are selected, and those that are not soft enough (probably collected by the end of the season) are blanched (soaked in warm water) before being stuffed and cooked. While selecting leaves around the grapes, it is advised to leave 10 leaves or more for every grape cluster to protect it from the sun.
While vegetarian stuffed grape leaves are an essential starter on the Lebanese table, grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice or meat and bulgur constitute a traditional Lebanese meal served with stuffed zucchini, eggplants and sometimes bell peppers. The stuffed grape leaves are often packed and tied with a thread (grandma’s way), and served with refreshing yogurt.
Freshly picked sour leaves are often enjoyed with tabbouleh instead of lettuce or cabbage leaves.
The preservation methods of grape leaves vary from freezing to packing in jars and preserving in brine. Grape leave are frozen without being washed; wiping them with a dry towel to remove any dust or debris is enough before stacking them flat in a plastic bag. Removing air as much as possible prior to sealing the bag and freezing is essential. Frozen leaves can last in the freezer up to 12 months. For defrosting before cooking, the bag is moved to the refrigerator a night before use and leaves are washed under running water.
To preserve grape leaves in jars, no need to wash them either. Leaves are packed flat and solid in an airtight glass jar which is stored in a dark place up to months. Leaves can also be rolled in packs of 10 or more then placed in the jar. Once the jar is open, it should be stored in the refrigerator to avoid molds formation. Leaves are washed prior to stuffing and cooking.
To preserve grape leaves in brine, leaves are washed and pat dried. They are then stacked in piles of 10-20 leaves and rolled like cigars, then placed vertically in glass jars. A brine solution is prepared: for every cup of coarse sea salt, 12 cups of water are added. The salty water is then brought to boil while stirring to completely dissolve the sea salt. To make sure water salinity is enough to preserve the grape leaves, a clean raw egg is placed in the water: if the egg floats then the water is salty enough, and if the egg drops to the bottom then more salt should be stirred in until the egg floats to the surface. The hot water is poured over the leaves in the jar and the color of the leaves will get darker, which is normal. Jars are then closed tight and will last up to a year. Once opened, a jar should be put in the refrigerator.