foraging for grape leaves in Chicago

grape leaves

Wild grape leaves grow all over the city and suburbs. You've probably seen them hundreds of times, but never realized what you were looking at. And once you learn how to identify grape leaves, you'll start seeing them everywhere. Last weekend, I went foraging with my mom and learned a lot about identifying and preparing the leaves. But, as they say, safety first!

foraging safety

While grape leaves are one of the easiest things to identify and forage, all foraging should be done with caution and care. If you want to go foraging for grape leaves, I highly recommend going with an experienced forager. Identifying edible plants can be tricky, and you should find an expert who can teach you in person. This post only compiles my personal experiences and cannot be relied upon as a recommendation to harvest or consume any particular plant.

I hope that this post will give you a sense of what to expect if you decide to go (you'll probably impress your guide with all your grape leaf knowledge!), but don't just head into the woods with your phone. If you do choose to go, here are some things to keep in mind to make sure you have a safe and fun experience:

  • When you're looking for grape leaves out in the world, you should find a place that's not treated with pesticides and that isn't growing on questionable land (e.g., don't pick grape leaves that are growing right next to a gas station; don't pick grape leaves right after your town has sprayed for mosquitoes; don't trespass, don't pick leaves in a place where it's illegal to, etc.).

  • Also make sure there isn't any poison ivy, poison oak, or other dangerous plants intertwining with the grape leaves.

  • Avoid dirty leaves or leaves with holes in them.

  • If you're under 18, ask for a parent's help.

  • The bottom line is that you should use common sense when choosing a safe and legal place to forage and you should avoid doing anything dangerous. When in doubt, just buy a jar of grape leaves from the market. And again, please do find an experienced forager to show you the ropes. This list of safety concerns might not be exhaustive, and a truly experienced forager can give you the safest possible experience.

upper grape leaves
upper grape vines

how to tell whether it's a grape leaf

Now I'll tell you a little bit about how to identify grape leaves in Chicago, so that you can keep an eye out for them while you're out and about.

  • Grape leaves that grow around Chicago look a tiny bit like maple leaves, but they have a characteristic flat or round indentation around the stem, like in the photos above. If the stem comes to a sharp concave or convex point, you're looking at a maple tree leaf or something else (or perhaps you are foraging for grape leaves in another region, in which case, this advice might not apply). The leaves should look like the photos above.

  • Grape leaves grow on vines, so look for red and green vines.

  • Grape leaves also have wavy or curly reddish tendrils that allow them to climb, although these tendrils can sometimes appear more green, depending on how old they are.

  • There are often teeny-tiny grape clusters. See the photos above to spot these.

  • Beyond appearance, you can also rely a little on smell. They should smell a little like sour grapes when you tear them.

when and where to find them

  • Make sure you don't pick grape leaves from places where it's illegal to do so, such as forest preserves.

  • To spot them, when you're out walking, don't just look straight ahead, but look up and down and side to side, since the vines can grow low on the ground or up the sides and branches of trees.

  • Most grape vines that are bred for producing sweet grapes are way too tough and fibrous, so stick to ones that grow wild, or ones that are grown specifically for their leaves.

  • If you want to harvest them, it's best to search for them from late May to mid June. You can sometimes get away with finding the newer growth in early July, but by mid-July, they will be too tough. Find an expert to make sure they're safe to eat, and only harvest leaves that are large enough to wrap (about 4 to 6 inches across), but not large, fuzzy, and veiny (the later in the season, the tougher and more fibrous they become).

preparing fresh grape leaves
preparing fresh grape leaves

preparing fresh grape leaves

This is the method I use to prepare fresh grape leaves:

  • Boil enough water to cover the grape leaves (usually about 1 to 2 quarts).

  • Wash the leaves with cold water to knock off any pollen or dirt.

  • Put the leaves in an even layer in a shallow dish and cover with boiling water by about 1/2 inch. Put a plate on top and use a wooden spoon to press the plate down, pushing the air out of it and completely submerging the leaves.

  • After 25 minutes, gently wring the leaves out and either use them immediately or freeze them. To freeze them, stack them together and place in a ziplock bag. Push as much air out of the bag as possible (without crushing the leaves) and freeze for 6 to 8 months.

IMG_7747-1 copy.jpg

smoky, moody, and deep masgouf

Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf

My family has always served dinner with a big salad piled high with lots of fresh veggies, drizzled with herby lemon vinaigrette, and sprinkled with lots of zesty sumac. But our salad is no mere side salad. We heap it onto our main course plates, so that there's pretty much a 1:1 ratio of salad to everything else. So needless to say, when I was planning this series of 3 masgouf posts (also known as masguf or masgoof), everyone in my family opted for the green and herby masgouf.

But not everyone has to be so fanatical about fresh, green flavors. On the other side of the spectrum, many people gravitate toward those really umami, smoky flavors that characterize the best barbecue, chili, rogan josh, anchovy pizza, tapenade, and miso soup. And if this list has you drooling, this is certainly the masgouf for you.

Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf Marinade
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf Seasoning

All this is, of course, not to say that people who like umami hate freshness, or that people who love bright flavors hate deep flavors—a really good meal will have a balance of both. But everyone has a different idea of what a perfect balance looks like.

To make this masgouf the smokiest, moodiest, and deepest, I replaced some of the curry powder with the deeper flavors of paprika and dried thyme, which gives the final dish a less sunny disposition. But the real heart of this masgouf is the slow-roast tomatoes, which spend hours developing a very intense flavor. My husband and I call these Erin and Alvin tomatoes, after our friends who taught us how to roast them this way. Alvin suggests cutting the tomatoes in half as levelly as possible, so that they don't lose any juices while they roast. As you can see below, for me, this is aspirational. But they come out wonderfully, no matter how wonkily you slice them, and the over-caramelized (ahem, burnt!) pools of tomato juices are simply left behind on the pan, to be washed away with all your worries about perfection.

These tomatoes are also really delicious smeared with goat cheese on challah or brioche, cut into quarters and tossed with some pasta and basil leaves, or spread on cornbread, fresh from the oven (seriously, try these with cornbread). If you're using them for something else, feel free to use different herbs and spices, or leave them out altogether. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to double the tomato part of the recipe, so that you have some left over.

Slow-roasted Tomatoes
Erin and Alvin
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf

The trickiest thing about this masgouf recipe is making sure nothing burns, since the tomatoes essentially get cooked twice. You want some char, but you don't want to turn your tomatoes to ashes. If you're really worried about it, you can simply place the roast tomatoes on the fish after it's finished cooking, but I think something special happens when the fish cooks together with the tomatoes. So to have the best of both worlds, I cook this masgouf by topping the raw fish with the slow-roast tomatoes and raw onions, roasting the entire dish for a few minutes at a lower-than-usual temperature, and then tenting it loosely with foil for the rest of the cooking time to make sure nothing burns. All of this is in the recipe, but it's worth nothing that you should use your own judgment when deciding if and when to tent.

For more masgouf:
Sweet, sour, and spicy masgouf
Green and herby masgouf

Masgouf Trio
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf

smoky, moody, and deep masgouf

Yield: 2 to 3 servings (can easily be multiplied)
Active time: 40 minutes
Total time: 4 1/2 hours

slow-roasting the tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt
14 ounces of whole black tomatoes (or garden variety red tomatoes), about 2 large tomatoes

  • Pre-heat the oven to 325° F.

  • Combine the curry, thyme, paprika, olive oil, and salt in a small bowl.

  • Do not remove the stems or hull the tomatoes. Simply slice the tomatoes in half, cutting from one side to the other, rather than cutting from stem to end. Try to make your cut as level and horizontal as possible.

  • Coat the tomatoes in the oil-spice mixture and place the tomatoes cut-side-up on a roasting pan (optionally, using a silicone mat will help you remove them later).

  • Slow-roast the tomatoes in the oven, checking every 30 minutes to make sure they are not burning. ** If the tomatoes seem to be browning very quickly early on, turn the heat down to 300° F and be prepared to cook them longer. The tomatoes are done once they have have shrunk significantly, browned nicely, and no longer ooze juice. This will take between 2 to 4 hours, depending on the tomatoes' size and sugar content, and can be done up to 3 days ahed of time, and kept in the refrigerator.

  • Once the tomatoes are done, remove the stems and use kitchen shears to snip away any burnt bits.

marinating the fish

1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon curry powder (either store-bought or homemade)
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
10 to 12 ounces of white, lean fish fillets (about 1 big or 2 small fillets) *

  • Add the lemon juice, curry powder, thyme, paprika, olive oil, and salt to a large ziplock bag, seal the bag and mix everything around by squeezing the bag a few times.

  • Pat the fish dry with paper towels, and place it in the bag with the marinade. Squeeze the bag to evenly coat the fish in the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to 4 hours if you want to make it ahead).

grilling the fish

marinated fish (above)
roast tomatoes (above)
2 tablespoons thinly sliced red onions (fill a quarter cup halfway)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Pinch salt
Optional: 1 teaspoon minced parsley for garnish

  • Once the fish has marinaded, preheat the grill to medium-high. If you're baking, pre-heat the oven to 425° F.

  • To assemble the onion topping: combine the red onions, lemon juice, curry powder, thyme, paprika, and salt.

  • Take the fish from the marinade, do not pat it dry, and place it on a grill-safe tray (with a rim if you're using the oven).

  • Top the fish with the roast tomatoes, followed by the onion topping. Bake or grill (with the lid down) for 2 minutes and then check on the masgouf. Loosely tent the fish with foil if the tomatoes are browning too quickly, or leave it untented and continue to check on it every few minutes.

  • Continue to grill or bake until the fish is flaky. Cooking times vary, depending on the shape and size of your fish and the particular quirks of your grill, but you can count on at least 10 minutes on the grill (or at least 15 minutes in the oven).

  • Garnish with minced parsley and serve immediately.

* Catfish is pictured, but you could use tilapia, cod, carp, branzino, or any other similar fish.
** Don't worry if any runaway drippings start to burn.

Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf