By this time of the year in Israel, it’s hot and dry. You need sunblock just to walk to the bus stop. The empty lot that in spring was lush with waist-high tangles of wild greens looks empty, sandy and dour. A car driving through raises clouds of dust. The bottle of cold water in my hand becomes warm almost before I can drink it. It doesn’t look like there’s any wild stuff out there to bring home.
But once foraging is in your blood, you’re unconsciously taking note of every living thing you walk past. Look over there – the neighbor’s passiflora vine is dripping with green egg-shaped fruit. Glimpsed behind garden walls, trees have already put forth hard little lemons and oranges. Purslane is out on the ground, a delicious salad vegetable when picked young and tender.
And there are the mulberry trees. In my neighborhood, every block or so has its mulberry. Their branches were picked clean by boys and birds a few weeks ago already – and by me. I picked about 5 kilos of dark-red berries to make wine, this spring. But there’s still a harvest in the trees, one that few people know about anymore.
Mulberry leaves aren’t just for silk worms. Dried and crumbled, they make a mildly sweet medicinal tea that’s said to bring down blood sugar. And you can stuff them, like grape leaves.
A nice large handful of medium-sized leaves was enough for one kilo of spiced and seasoned ground lamb. The crisp, dark-green bundles with their juicy meat filling were about the size and length of my thumb. We ate them hot on Shabbat. The cold leftovers were almost as delicious.
If you have a mulberry tree in your neighborhood and feel inspired to try stuffing the leaves, let the tree keep the biggest ones. They tend to be tough. Pick tender, medium-sized leaves. Very small new leaves are fine too. I think they would make great little appetizers or party fare – less filling than traditional stuffed grape leaves.
My potted plants supplied the fresh herbs for seasoning, but lacking fresh, use dried. Just not basil – there’s no flavor in dried basil. Substitute parsley.
It took about half an hour to fill 35 leaves, but then I was alone. Next time I might shanghai the Little One to stuff leaves with me.
Or not. I enjoyed filling and rolling the leaves, securing each bundle with a toothpick. It was a little fiddly at first, but I got the hang of it, and what with the radio playing hot jazz and the fan blowing cool air, the work was fun.
Against the time when the trees will have shed their leaves, I picked extra and froze them in sealed plastic bags.
This recipe is less fussy than leaves stuffed with a rice mixture and cooked in a sauce. First, though, go out and pick around 40 mulberry leaves. Rinse them of dust and check for bird droppings or insects. Dry gently. Some will rip, so I advise to pick those 5 extra, just in case.
Lamb-Stuffed Mulberry Leaves
printable version here
Yield: about 35 stuffed leaves. Enough for 4 dinner servings or 35 appetizers.
1 kg. ground lamb or other firm meat
1 egg, beaten
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped fine
1 teaspoon fresh oregano or za’atar, chopped fine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1- 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
juice of 1 large lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
More sliced lemon for serving
Preheat the oven to 350° F, 190° C.
Mix all ingredients except lemon juice and olive oil. Knead the seasoned meat with your hands to mix everything very well.
Line a baking tray with parchment. Place a leaf shiny side down. Take a tablespoon of meat and roll it into a patty in your palms. Place it on the wide end of the leaf. Add a little more meat if it looks skimpy; pull some out if it looks like too much for the leaf to cover.
Roll it up. Don’t be concerned about the sides being open; you won’t get a perfect rectangle with the sides neatly tucked in as with stuffed vine leaves. The patty will become slightly elongated in rolling. Secure the pointed top with a toothpick.
Mix the lemon juice and olive oil in a little bowl. Drizzle it generously all over the tops of the stuffed leaves.
Bake for 15 minutes if you want them juicy. There will be a certain amount of natural drippings in the pan – pour it out when you’ve removed the stuffed leaves, and pour it over them.
If you want a crisp wrapping and somewhat drier filling (good for handing around at a party or for a snack), bake 20 minutes.
Serve with sliced lemon for squeezing over the hot or cold leaves. Rice or bulgur or couscous is nice with these savory little packages. Beer or a chilled wine too.
Ahh…summer in the Middle East.