Homemade stuffed grape leaves are worth a little extra effort. (Photo courtesy Maureen Abood)
I've been working on some projects lately that have a lot to do with introducing Lebanese food to people for the first time. Whenever my sister and I are cooking something completely new, we say "First time over" to each other, remembering the favorite phrase of our college history professor who took students on study-abroad programs. When they (we) didn't know what was going on, he'd say, "First time over."
If cooking Lebanese or any Middle Eastern food is new to you, this recipe for stuffed grape leaves is the perfect place to start.
Yes, it involves a few steps (make the filling, roll the stuffed leaves, cook). And you may wonder how I can breeze past "roll the stuffed leaves" as though I'd said something as simple as "rake the leaves." The thing about that is it's not difficult. As with most new things that take time, the effort is more about focusing, trying once or twice to get the hang of it, and making the process your own. Once that's under your belt, rolling grape leaves is a snap. So much so that it's not uncommon among the Lebanese to roll at least a hundred at once.
As for the leaves, I'd love to say you can go pick any leaves from a grape vine, but no. We use fresh leaves from wild vines that don't bear fruit, and foraging for them becomes an obsession among the Lebanese-and those in the know-the world over every spring. I've found wild vines amid the tangle of branches on Zoll Street, and I've found them in Petoskey along the fences of certain parking lots (come spring, I may just tell you precisely where, if you're nice...). I've even had some friends up here bring me leaves from their own backyards (thank you!).
But we don't stop making these savory little bites when the fresh leaves are gone. We grab a jar, unfurl the stacks of leaves pickled in brine, rinse them good, and away we roll. I always thought that rolls from fresh leaves were the best of the best, until I went to Lebanon last year. My new-found cousin, May, canned her leaves from her village in Southern Lebanon in a salty brine by the thousands, telling me she likes them best that way because they have more flavor. The difference with hers is that she uses small, very tender spring leaves. The leaves the rest of us get at the grocery store in a jar are often very large, and can also be kind of tough.
I'm not letting that stop me, though, from rolling grape leaves in the colder months using jarred leaves from the store. Stuffed grape leaves are a fixture on our table for holidays and other special meals; my Aunt Hilda brought them over every Christmas Eve of her adult life, as her gift, her labor of love. The rolls are perfect as mezze-an appetizer-with a dip made from thick yogurt seasoned with mint and garlic. They may seem too nice, or too special, to keep around for a snack, but I like to since they're so healthy and it's easy to grab one on the run. And they freeze, uncooked, beautifully, so make-ahead is simple.
If making stuffed grape leaves is your "first time over" to cooking Lebanese, then welcome! We discover so much whenever we head somewhere for the first time, whether in the kitchen or across the miles.
Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves
Lebanese-style stuffed grape leaves are smaller and thinner than Greek dolma, so use a tablespoon or less of filling in each roll. The method is the same whether you are using fresh or jarred grape leaves, except the fresh leaves need not be soaked in cold water. To make smaller rolls, cut jarred leaves in half.
50 grape leaves, medium size
½ cup long grain rice
½ pound ground beef(90% lean) or lamb
¼ cup butter, melted
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 bone-in pork chops or 4 chicken wings (optional)
3 large grape leaves
Rinse the leaves thoroughly and soak in cold water for 15 minutes. Line a heavy, deep pan with meat bones if using, then 3 grape leaves. (Line the pan with just the leaves if no meat is being used).
For the filling:
In a medium-size bowl, combine rice, ground beef or lamb, butter, salt, pepper, and cinnamon. Mix well with your hands.
Prepare a Dutch oven or other heavy pan with a lid by lining the bottom with the pork chops or chicken wings, if using. Spread 3 large leaves over the top of the meat.
To stuff and roll the leaves:
Use only the leaves that have no holes in them. The larger leaves can be cut in half.
Place the grape leaves facing vein-side up on work surface with the wide stem-end of the leaf toward you. Snip the stems off the leaves. Drop 1 heaping teaspoon of filling across that stem edge of the leaf, shaping like a finger, leaving enough leaf on either side of the meat for rolling. Don't roll the leaves too tightly-allow room for rice filling to expand. Fold the right and left sides of the leaf over the meat like an envelope and roll securely, away from you, tucking in the edges as you roll.
Arrange stuffed leaves in rows in a heavy, deep pan, alternating the direction of each layer of rows. Slice one lemon crosswise into several ¼-inch slices and lay the lemon slices over the rolls. Place a plate face down over the top layer to prevent the rolls from floating.
Fill pot with warm water up to the plate. Cover and bring slowly to a boil. After about 20 minutes, add the juice of the other lemon to the cooking water. Some prefer much more lemon than this, or none at all; adjust as you please. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30-40 minutes, for a total cooking time of about one hour, until rice is tender. Remove from the heat and let the rolls cool off for at least 15 minutes.
Serve warm with cooked lemon slices as a garnish and thick yogurt dip.