From Lebanon to Table
Ever since I can remember, while I was growing up, for special occasions we would have Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves. To those unfamiliar with grape leaves, it sounds strange: “Why would you eat leaves? It’s the grapes that are delicious.” But to me, it reminds me of home and family- it brings to memory the thought of my Great Grandma whom we affectionately refer to as Sito. She journeyed from Lebanon to the United States in the early 1920’s and with her she brought family, culture, vegetable seeds, and food. She didn’t ever truly learn English, but I was fortunate enough to get to spend some time with her and I only ever learned two Arabic phrases from her- “Shut your mouth” and “Give me a kiss Uncle Johnny.”
Cooking with Sito was an adventure unto itself. She never really told you what was in a dish and if you were to help out, she would let you, but when you weren’t looking, she’d sneak a spice into the dish. Somehow, between all the children and grandchildren, we were able to decipher those “secret” spices and pass down the recipes. Some of my favorite Lebanese foods are grape leaves, stuffed cabbage rolls, rizenyukna, stuffed zucchini, and tabouleh.
Where to get Grape Leaves
According to my grandma (Sito’s daughter-in-law), the best and only kind of grape leaves come from Thompson Seedless Grape Vines because they aren’t stringy. If you want them fresh, the key to picking them is to get them early- before the grapes are ripe. You don’t want them to be too big, or they will be tough to roll, but you don’t want them to be too small because they’ll cook faster than the others. About the size of the palm of your hand is just perfect. Wanna know a secret though? I rarely pick my own grape leaves. You can buy them in jars at many grocery stores if you know where to look- usually on the top shelf. These are the easiest to use because they have already been gathered and prepared in a brine solution that makes them easy to work with.
A Few Tips
- I remember that my dad would have the butcher grind the lamb again so that it was nice and tender- I suggest doing this if you have this option available to you.
- When you serve this, serve it with a lemon wedge slice so your guests can add a little more acidity if they like.
- When I was living in Brasil, lamb was not easily accessible, but I missed Grape Leaves, so I decided to make them for Thanksgiving. I made them with ground beef and cabbage instead. They tasted delicious! Now technically this is a stuffed cabbage roll, but we often make the above recipe with blanched cabbage leaves as well as grape leaves. The only difference is that you should use a different pot because you will have to have larger pieces of lamb mixture for the cabbage and this will cause them to have different cooking times.
- You can use ground turkey if you like, as well. I use a 93%.
- Using Parboiled Rice will help decrease the time it takes for the rice to absorb the water- you can find this in both in whit or brown varieties
- Consider using chicken broth instead of water for the soaking and add some dissolved chicken bouillon to your pot, this will add to the flavor.
Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves
Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb & RiceCourse: Dinner
1 cup parboiled rice (like Uncle Ben’s)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mint leaves
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 lb lean ground lamb
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)
1 large bottle grape leaves
1/2 cup Olive Oil
- Juice 2 lemons (about 5 tablespoons) and add juice to rice. Add water until rice is just barely covered, then stir in all spices and let stand until all fluids are absorbed (about 2 hours)
- Mix thoroughly with lamb and optional pine nuts
- Trim stems from grape leaves
- Portion the rice and lamb mixture into a cigar shape about the size of your finger
- Place at the bottom of the open leaf and start to roll from the center. After a half roll, tuck the sides of the leaf into the center. Roll forward all the way with your hand on a hard surface
- Layer the rolls in a stock pot, brushing each layer with olive oil and lightly sprinkling with salt, pepper and cinnamon
- Cover with water and simmer on low heat for 1 hour
- Serve with Lebanese Bread
- If fresh leaves are available (Thompson seedless grape leaves only) select young leaves and wash thoroughly.