Foraging Israel: Lamb-Stuffed Mulberry Leaves
In a dusty field near my apartment in Petach Tikvah, a huge, old mulberry tree stands alone. During a few weeks in May, its leafy branches hide kilos of those delicate deep-purple berries. If I get out early enough in the morning, I can garner some of that fruit, but I’m competing with other pickers: birds, kids on their way to school, and the Arab construction workers who sleep on site and wake up with the sunrise. Every block in my neighborhood is graced with one or two large, shady mulberry trees. They were likely planted here for the love of their shade and fruit by members of a local moshav in the late 1880s.
Mulberries in Israel go back as far as the mid-1500s, when Joseph Nasi, Jewish diplomat and administrator under the Ottoman rule, tried to re-establish Tiberias and nearby villages as an independent state for refugee Jews from the Papal States (Italy and southern France). Silk was an important luxury product, so mulberry trees were planted there to feed silkworms for the hopeful new industry. The plan failed when the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice warred, but the mulberry trees remained, scattering their descendants far over Israel.
Safed also has ancient mulberry trees, and I have harvested their fruit many times when I lived there. I would dry whole berries in the shade, crush some to ferment the juice for wine, and take part of the harvest to cook with sugar for jam. But what I didn’t know is that the leaves are edible too.
Earlier than usual one morning, I saw three elderly Sephardic ladies standing by my tree. They were picking the young leaves. Never shy with fellow foragers, I asked the eldest what they did with them. She turned her wrinkled face up to me and explained, “When mulberry leaves are tender, we stuff them, like grape leaves.” She showed me the bagful she’d already gathered. “It’s the medium-sized ones from the lower branches,” she said. “The big leaves are tough, and the ones from high up are dirtier.”
I picked a few of the good leaves myself, and took them home to stuff. I chose to use only seasoned ground lamb, bake the dolmas (the stuffed leaves), and serve them over bulgur. But you can use any traditional Greek or Turkish dolma recipe.
Nobody sells mulberry leaves commercially here, so the first thing to do is 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 pick 5 extra, just in case. You may use fresh grape leaves instead. Lacking either, use brined grape leaves from a jar, rinsed and patted dry.
Lamb-Stuffed Mulberry Leaves
Yield: about 35 stuffed leaves. Enough for 4 dinner servings or 35 appetizers.
2 pounds ground lamb
1 egg, beaten
1 medium onion, finely chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, crushed
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
1) Mix all ingredients except lemon juice and olive oil. Knead the seasoned meat with your hands to mix everything very well.
2) 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.
3) 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. Repeat until you have used up all the ingredients.
4) 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 — spoon it over the cooked leaves.
5) For a crisp wrapping and somewhat drier filling (good for handing around at a party or for a snack), bake 20 minutes.
6) Serve with sliced lemon for squeezing over the leaves. Rice, bulgur or couscous is nice with these savory little packages. Serve with beer or a chilled white wine.
You may use dried herbs, but not basil, which loses all flavor when dried. Substitute parsley.
Mulberry leaves may be brewed into a pleasant, faintly sweet medicinal tea. They must be thoroughly dried and crumbled first. The dosage is 1 teaspoon to 1 cup boiling water. The cup should be covered and the tea infused for 20 minutes, then strained. This tea is known to lower blood sugar significantly. If you’d like to use this method but are already taking medication to control blood sugar, it’s wise to monitor changes regularly and adjust intake accordingly.