My high school graduation party was catered by a little mom and pop Egyptian market in the suburb next to ours. Instead of burgers and potato salad, we had vats of falafel, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, hummus, buttery rice pilaf, and stuffed grape leaves. My mouth waters just typing all those words in a row. I’m not sure where my Middle Eastern food obsession began (maybe the Lebanese restaurant next to my dad’s work that was a treat when we’d visit him there?), or how/where/if it collides with my Jewish roots, but I do know the love is deep. I’m not interested in debating ownership of my favorite foods — I know many countries claim creation of falafel and hummus and dolmas, but I will not engage. I will happily eat all varieties. Whichever is nearest is the best. (Except for my vast disappointment while teaching in Azerbaijan a couple years back, where I learned ALL dolmas there have meat. They called this rice-filled stye “fake dolmas” and looked down their noses at it. I had zero stuffed grape leaves in Azerbaijan 😦 .)
The owner of that mom and pop market loved my parents and got to know them a bit — I mean, they’d order TONS of food for big parties every so often, how could they not. At some point around high school he told us that he couldn’t wait to cater my wedding someday. I’m sure I was immediately embarrassed and rolled my eyes and said yeah sure, whatever…
And then ten years later, lo and behold, I was engaged! And the first thing I knew I wanted at my wedding (besides the right husband 😉 ) — was the food! Stuffed grape leaves, falafel, mezze and dips galore. Homey, bright, flavorful food with history. No chicken breasts or veggie pastas. We started from food and made decisions from there. As the wedding was not close to my childhood home, alas, we could not fulfill the prophecy made by Mr. Market Owner, but I never forgot his words. We hired a different mom and pop operation — or I guess it was more like pop and friends — and it was more Turkish than Egyptian, but oh man I feel pretty good about claiming we really had the best ever wedding food. The grape leaves were lip-pursing with pomegranate molasses, the hummus silky smooth, the fattoush crunchy and seasonal. I only wish I ate more of it.
I can’t believe I’ve never tried to make grape leaves, long one of my favorite foods. I will always order stuffed grape leaves if they’re on the menu (well, if they’re meat-free and nut-less, not guaranteed), and rarely have I found one I don’t like. Daniel was iffy about them until I came along and showed him the light. Calling them “grape leaves” doesn’t do justice do the tangy, spicy, citrusy, poppy dare-I-say vegetal dumpling that awaits. And so this seemed like a great project for a Sunday afternoon during quarantine. I had a jar of grape leaves around from my bridal shower and had a recipe for them in #thebinder, but I went off script and used a completely different recipe, one that had Turkish spices, as we just bought black Urfa chili flakes and dried mint from my friend’s amazing spice company and wanted to put them to use, and because it was vegetarian. Daniel added some beef to his, but admitted it wasn’t necessary. We didn’t totally nail the cooking time on these, but they’re still amazing, and still highly recommended for a weekend project.
five years ago: grilled pineapple and baked bean tacos
Stuffed Grape Leaves
adapted from Give Recipe
1 lb jar of grape leaves (we didn’t use all of them)
2 cups white rice, rinsed
1 big tomato, peeled and finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
4-6 cloves garlic, finely diced
¼ – ½ cup fresh parsley, finely diced
½ teaspoon cayenne (these are on the spicy side! do less if you’d like)
½ teaspoon black urfa chili flakes (optional, but nice and smoky)
2 teaspoons dried mint
1 teaspoon sumac
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon tomato or pepper paste (optional)
juice of 1 lemon
½ cup olive oil
Ground beef, optional
At least 2 cups water
¼ cup olive oil
Remove grape leaves from jar and soak in hot water to remove some of the brine.
To make filling, mix all filling ingredients in a big bowl. To make a meaty version, remove about a quarter of the mixture and place in a new bowl. Add about a quarter pound of ground beef and mix to incorporate.
Lay out a grape leaf. Cut off the pointy stem with a paring knife. Place about a teaspoon or two of filling in a line right above the removed stem. Fold the bottom of the leaf up. Fold both sides in. Roll up to form a small log. Don’t roll too tightly, as rice will expand as it’s cooked and you don’t want them to explode. (The video from from Give Recipe shows this folding process clearly.)
Repeat until done with filling. As you’re filling, remove any misshapen or torn leaves. Use them to cover the bottom of a wide pot or braiser. Then, stack all filled and rolled grape leaves in the pot. Pour 2 cups water and ¼ cup olive oil over your nested grape leaves. Cover pot and turn heat to low. Cook for at least 45 minutes. Check for rice doneness and continue adding water and steaming as necessary. Ours took another 20ish minutes.
Try to stop yourself from eating the whole pan warm off the stove. Store in the fridge and serve with yogurt if you’d like.