I love food so much it’s ridiculous. Especially eating it. But making it can be pretty fun too. Especially when I’m not just a full-time veggie chopper. Especially, when you get to cook with family or friends, for special occasions, or particularly exciting dishes.
Every year, as per tradition, our family makes the same Middle Eastern dishes for Easter (and family reunions). My great grandfather, Sam Bitar, and my great grandmother came from the Middle East in the early 1900s. Technically he was Syrian and she was Lebanese… they came over just before the post -WWI French League of Nations Mandate that divided the Ottoman Empire (Contemporary Middle Eastern History with Dr. Saffran filled my brain with far too much knowledge). Thus we consider ourselves Lebanese & Syrian. We make grape leaves, fatayers, hummus, tabbouleh, and kibbe. Kibbe nayyi (raw) for particularly special occasions. And for dessert mahmoul & ka’ak cookies. Hummus & tabbouleh are the only two vegan dishes. So I’ve been developing vegan recipes based off of the traditional ones.
But back to the grape leaves, if you’ve had grape leaves you’ve probably had the lenten version… vegetarian (and maybe you called them Dolmas… which are technically Turkish – it gets complicated). But traditionally, my family stuffed their grape leaves with beef & rice. I think lamb is actually the most traditional (at least according to the cookbooks) but probably becomes rather expensive when you’re churning out huge batches for the entiiiiire family.
The gist is, I grew up watching my mom makes these for significant family gatherings. And I tried to help make them… sometimes. And I definitely helped eat them. Straight our of the pot… when no one was looking. Grape Leaves are absolutely a unique flavor but they’re a bit gooey and very tangy (from the lemons & leaves) and definitely delicious. They’re especially wonderful vegan & dipped in hummus or baba ghanoush.
A Lebanese cookbook my grandmother gave me (she had 2 copies!) has “lenten” variations for many of the usually meat-laden recipes. In other words, during the 40 days before Easter, people eat vegetarian cuisine. Needless to say, the “Lenten” chapter of my cookbook is my favorite.
I checked out the listed recipe for lenten grape leaves before deciding to make up my own. The measurements below are a rough estimate. Because honestly, I kept just throwing more of one ingredient into the 4 cup measurer when I thought it looked like it needed more red or green.
The only tedious part of making Grape Leaves is the stuffing part. It’s actually pretty simple though.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 1 Cup White Rice
- 1/2 Cup Sliced Grape Tomatoes
- 1/4 Large Onion, finely diced
- 3 Tbsp Dried Currants
- 1/3 Cup Fresh Flat Leaf Parsley, chopped
- 3 Tbsp Mint, Chopped
- 1 Tsp Cinnamon
- 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
- 1 Jar Grape Leaves (You’ll only use about 20 – 30 Leaves)
- 2 – 3 Lemons, sliced thin
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir thoroughly to combine and coat rice.
Remove a hunk of grape leaves from the jar. They usually come in portions… they roll up about 20 – 40 leaves and shove them in the brine. Rinse the hunk of grape leaves under cold water, just to get a bit of brine off.
You want to use the larger grape leaves. About 6 inches in diameter or so. If you want to be a pro and happen to find a bunch of smaller leaves tucked in there, you can overlap them to make “one” larger grape leaf.
On a cutting board, spread grape leaf with the veins of the leaf facing up. Fill center with about 2 Tbsp of rice filling. Mom always makes hers longer & thinner but I’ve always liked mine shorter & fatter so you can spread the filling to your liking. I do about 2.5 – 3 inches long.
Next, you must rolllllll the grape leaf. Which is just like making a burrito. Which, anyone who’s worked at a Chipotle has mastered… unless you’ve worked in State College – your grape leaves may fall apart, much like your burritos. (Okay, some of their staff are definitely professionals, I’m only teasing).
1. Fold the end closest to you up over the rice.
2. Fold in the left & right sides over the top.
3. Roll the filling up the leaf until the top is sealed. You want to make sure they’re rolled well, snug but not “tight.” You don’t want them to fall apart in the simmering water but you want a bit of room for the rice to expand when it cooks.
If my directions make absolutely no sense because I am completely incompetent at explaining kitchen techniques… I’m more of a teach by show kinda gal…. there is a wonderful series of pictures at SouSou Kitchen that show the steps to rolling a grape leaf…. I suggest you visit the site since I don’t even think I understand what I’m explaining. Maybe it’s because it’s really quite simple - I swear!
Line a large-ish pot with the grape leaves to make a single bottom layer. Squeeze them in snug. Layer the slices of lemon on top of your bottom layer of grape leaves. Now, make a second layer of grape leaves in your pot. Mine didn’t quite fill a second layer, which proved to be slightly detrimental to the whole… grape leaves staying together thing. Or maybe I just didn’t make them “snug” enough. Doh! Top with more sliced lemon. Then fill pot with water until grape leaves are JUST covered. My mom says it’s as simple as cooking rice… which is essentially what you are doing. But I wasn’t that calm. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until most of the water is absorbed and the rice is thoroughly cooked (aka act like you’re cooking rice, because you are). Some liquid will remain. I like to call this the “juice.” It’s lemony and helps the grape leaves stay moist & flavorful so don’t throw it away… unless you’re going to eat them all immediately. Which is fine by me!