Letter From Skunk Hollow: Summer in a jar, and on a plate of dolmades

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
I won't claim they were the best dolmades I've ever eaten, but they were pretty good, and perhaps even perfect for this particular moment in the bleak midwinter — not least because of their origin.

Last August, when I gathered some wild grape leaves for an experiment in foraging and home food preservation, I wasn’t at all sure they’d be worth the trouble.

It was late in their season and most of the counsel I found online held that only the early-spring leaves are suitable for putting up, when they’re light-colored and delicate, not yet toughened by age and hot sun, and “smaller than a lady’s hand.”

Trouble was, by the time I’d accumulated this expert advice I’d already accumulated the leaves.

Sallie and I had been walking at Willow River State Park, on a trail we use less often than some others, and I was astonished by the masses of grapevine along our route, some of them climbing 40 feet in the air. Grapes were fairly scarce on these vines. But the leaves were plentiful, beautiful and almost within reach.

She waited patiently, or at least quietly, as I plunged into thicket after thicket, selecting the largest, darkest and sturdiest of the unblemished leaves until I held a wad of perhaps three dozen, all of them bigger than my hands, some of them perhaps as big as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s.

Which turned out to be all wrong, as I discovered shortly after returning home with my woodland bounty.

What could go wrong?

But I began to wonder — just how wrong it could be? The leaves were going to be blanched and preserved with lemon juice before going into storage, then steamed for an hour after being turned into dolmades. That ought to tenderize them. 

Many writers in the youngest/smallest faction were actually talking about dolmades made with fresh, unpreserved leaves, which I’m sure are every bit as special as their advocates claim. But my project wasn’t fresh-wrapped dolmades; pickling was.

So, I carefully concluded, to hell with it: I sorted, trimmed, washed, blanched, stacked and rolled my little treasures, put them into a jar with water and lemon juice, found them an out-of-the-way spot in the back of the fridge, and forgot them for the next five months.

Which brings us to yesterday.

I am not usually susceptible to cabin fever, a good thing considering where I live and the work I do.

But when dusk drew near on Wednesday I was itching for a walk in a pine woods somewhere up around Ely, maybe on a day in late spring or early autumn. (No doubt this had something to do with the large stacks of material on sulfide mining I’ve been digesting lately. )

There are pretty pine woods much nearer than Ely, of course, but now it was getting dark and the fierce cold was only getting deeper.

Summer in a jar

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Summer in a jar

I moped from window to window, tossing from hand to hand a little jelly jar of beach glass I keep within reach through the winter, so I can hold it up to the light and be reminded of sunny days on the beaches of Lake Superior with my then-young son, of paddling sea kayaks in the Apostle Islands with Sallie, of beachcombing with friends on the coast of Maine … of the bright and warmer days that lie ahead.

Summer in a jar, is how I think of it, and yesterday it recalled that other jar of summer I’d put up so long ago.

And as darkness gathered outside the kitchen windows, I decided it was time to put my contrarian foraging to the test.

According to a favorite and contemporary resource focused on our region — Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest — two types of wild grape are especially abundant herabouts: Vitis riparia, or riverside grape, and Vitis aestivalis, the summer grape.

The chief identifiable differences are the shape and underside color of the leaves, and I’m sure I had some of each:

  • Riverside grape has leaves shaped kind of like the maple leaf on the Canadian flag, but bottom-heavy, and the underside is of a lighter, bluer shade than the top.
  • Summer grape leaves are about the same color on both sides, and are often quite deeply lobed — reminiscent of a mulberry leaf, but larger.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
I found that the summer grape leaves rolled better than the riversides.

I found that the summer grape leaves rolled better than the riversides, because the spaces between the lobes work almost like cutouts placed to make the folding and rolling easier, resulting in a tighter, firmer dolma that may also have stood up a little better in the steaming phase.

Summer on the plate

For smaller leaves than mine, though, you might want the fuller, gapless riverside variety. (A decent photo tutorial on the rolling process is here and there any number of others, as well as videos, around the Web.)

There are plenty of dolmades recipes out there, too, and mine is not particularly commendable — a standard hot version filled with meat and rice, meant as an entree, as opposed to the cold dolmades made with rice and currants, often as an appetizer.

As I said, it was cold outside, and this resulted in some substitute ingredients. I wasn’t going to suit up and drive into town for ground lamb and short-grain rice, and made do instead with ground turkey and basmati.

And the result?

I won’t claim they were the best dolmades I’ve ever eaten, but they were pretty good, and perhaps even perfect for this particular moment in the bleak midwinter — not least because of their origin.

I ate them slowly, looking at summer in a jar of beach glass and tasting it, too, in one wild leaf after another.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 01/27/2014 - 08:16 am.

    coming in from the cold, but…

    Your Dolmades adventure reminds me of Tom Pratchio’s Greek Town restaurant in Duluth “Natchios” which closed some time ago whose ethnic cuisine was fabulous – the right balance of herbs and seasoning he executed to perfection

    Then too… he told an interesting story from his childhood growing up on the hillside neighborhood in Duluth. His mother would send Tom and his siblings out to pick nettles in the Spring; their red hands burning from the stinging weed. She would steam or boil; then drain I suppose…then add rich cream and her special herbs too…finally lace with crumbled Feta cheese and lots of butter.

    A steaming bowl was a rite of Spring one could say. although never had the opportunity to try a bowl but this may be the year.

    I also do cut a few branches from an overgrown ‘Forsythia’ bush if you have one and in a couple weeks, a yellow bouquet will dominate your spring harvest meal on a cold winter’s day, eh?

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