Monday, June 25, 2012

Delicious Fox Grape Forage

Here in Virginia, and particularly in my part of Appalachia, it has become a popular venture to open up wineries in the sloping mountainsides. Many wineries that rely on European and North American grapes owe a debt to the Southern Muscadine or Fox Grape. This wild cultivar of the south is resistant to many of the diseases that plague most domestic grape stock. Considered a weed by most for its tenacity and ability to choke out other plants and over run fences and creek beds, many don't know the secrets of fox grape wine, jelly, and jam. I myself find it hard to gather enough grapes from our tough scrubby vines as they love to climb up high into the trees of dip into the creek in the back yard. I did however come to enjoy the leaves when I was trying to make Vietnamese leaf-wrapped rolls and found myself without the traditional Betel leaves. The recipe said "if you lack for Betel use Grape instead". I wondered if it would be okay to use the Fox Grape leaf. I know of the domestic varieties being used but never heard of anyone cooking with Muscadine Grape Leaves. I tried it out two years ago and Fox Grape Leaf Wraps have become one of our favorite harbingers of spring and summer and we look forward to it every year.

First recognize your quarry and grab your basket for the harvest!  I have a few different places that I gather on my property so I'm not taxing any one plant.  I doubt I could over harvest them as they really do grow like weeds but I try to be sustainable all the same.  Look for full leaves ideally the size of your palm but slightly smaller will do for tiny portions.  Try to get leaves that haven't been riddled with holes, splattered with bird poop, or had bug eggs laid on them.  Pretty obvious but . . . anyway, I look for leaves that have an attractive middle green color and have a flat, not shiny, color.  They are young enough to be savory but old enough not to fall apart during wrapping.  Brand new spring green leaves that still have a sheen on them will tear easily while wrapping.  Older leaves that are a dark green color can harbor tough strings in the veins that are not fun to eat.  I find that I can make 30 rolls from one pound of meat.

Gather your grape leaves, rinse them in the sink, and then soak them in a bath of water for 20 minutes to a few hours in the fridge.  I find I can gather the leaves in the morning when it's cool and not as buggy, mix the meat, and then stash it in the fridge and it is ready and waiting by the time dinner time rolls around.  For the meat filling, you will need:

*1 pound of ground pork
*2 cloves of garlic minced
*2 tablespoons of minced lemongrass
*2 shallots minced
*1 teaspoon of curry powder
*1 teaspoon of oyster sauce
*2 teaspoons of fish sauce
*1 tablespoon of corn starch
*2 teaspoons of sugar
*1/4 teaspoon of salt
*1/2 freshly ground black pepper

I mix all the seasonings together in a paste first and then kneed it into the pork like meatloaf.  If I don't have everything readily available, there are some suitable substitutes you can use.  I rarely have shallots just hanging around.  I went to the Spice Diva and scored some dried shallots.  (I adore their apothecary style storefront!)  I use a tablespoon per "shallot" called for in a recipe.  In the photo above, I substituted scallions.  If needed, I'm sure you could substitute hoisin for oyster without noticing too much.  Once your filling has been prepared, let it rest for an hour in the fridge.  Take this opportunity as well to toss 5 or 6 bamboo skewers into some water to soak.

While your leaves and filling rest in the fridge you can whip up some delicious dipping sauce!  You will need:

*1 teaspoon of hot pepper flakes
*3 medium cloves of garlic
*1/4 cup of sugar
*3 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice
*1 tablespoon white vinegar
*3 tablespoons of fish sauce
*1/2 cup of water
*1/2 teaspoon of salt

First, dissolve the sugar and salt in the lime juice, white vinegar, and fish sauce.  Next, mince the garlic and crush with the side of the knife to make a finely minced paste.  Add to sauce along with pepper flakes.  Add pepper flakes and set aside to wait for grape leaf rolls!

Now we are ready to start assembling!

Step 1:
Place your grape leaf on a flat surface and spoon a tablespoons worth of filling in the center.

Step 2:
Roll the bottom end near where stem was up.

Step 3:
Tuck sides of leaf into the roll as you would a little burrito.

Step 4:
Continue roll with sides enclosing meat filling.

Step 5:
Tah-Dah!  You've completed your grape leaf roll!

Step 6:
Now, skewer the little bugger on a bamboo skewer and keep trucking until the leaves run out or the filling runs out!

Now, your little green army is ready to cook.  Eeew!  That dirty hippy doesn't wash her pans!  No, my pan isn't dirty.  It's seasoned.  Stop judging.  I keep this one for things I know are going to make a mess.  Think of it as the battle ax veteran that holds your little green army together.

Go ahead and brush some oil on both sides of your grape leaf rolls.  I use olive oil.  These are fantastic on the grill but if you don't feel like firing up the briquettes you can fire up your oven to 400 degrees and cook for roughly 10 minutes until they look like this:

Trust me, it smells like heaven.  You might be inclined to say, Wow, that was a crap ton of work.  I don't know if I want to do all this again. and then you'll taste them and say, Wow, when are we going to have these again!!!  Later on during the winter when the snow flakes are drifting softly down you'll sit by the window and think, I wish I had a fox grape leaf roll right now.

I serve these up on a tray alongside fresh veggies like cucumbers, lettuce, carrots.  Most any vegetable that you like to consume raw will compliment these and taste great with the dipping sauce.  Enjoy!

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