You’d imagine after grape vines contributed their fruit to create the world’s extraordinary wines we humans would allow them a peaceful off-season, with thanks for a job well done. Yes, you’d think so, but those resourceful Mediterraneans had something else in mind when they finished harvesting the grapes. Why not use the leaves to wrap savory fillings, making a keynote dish?
Stuffed Grape Leaves are associated with Greek cuisine, first and foremost, but those featured today are Lebanese. There’s also a distinctly Egyptian version. All variations use rice as the main filling, while the accompanying spices and other supplements change from place-to-place, allowing each region its own signature.
Those seen above were showcased on Eating Well‘s website. Well, there the inspiration was, but that particular take is the “basic” Greek version. Add sumac and pine nuts, as I did, and you’ve created the Lebanese standard. Omit my changes and use instead orange zest and za’atar spice blend, and you have Egypt’s entry. Don’t you love to travel?
No matter the recipe, the fragrance entices and hints at the flavorful adventure that awaits. Just listing a few of the ingredients – mint, marjoram, cinnamon – takes one to a sun-dappled Eastern Mediterranean market. A welcome escape as the snow swirls outside.
Serving these with yogurt for dipping and lemon wedges adds tangy, vibrant notes, completing the journey. Congratulations, you just booked your winter vacation!
Lamb & Rice Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 1 16-ounce jar of grape leaves, drained (*1)
- 1 pound ground lamb (*2)
- 2 cups instant brown rice
- 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint, or 2 teaspoons dried
- 1 tablespoon dried marjoram leaves
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
Put a large saucepan of water on to boil. Remove the grape leaves from the jar; unroll and separate them. Cook the leaves for five minutes in the boiling water, then drain them in a colander. (*3)
Combine the lamb, rice, parsley, mint, marjoram, oil cinnamon, cumin, allspice, salt and pepper in a medium bowl.
To assemble the grape leaves, lay a clean, slightly wet kitchen towel on a work surface. Place a grape leaf flat on the towel, pointed away from you, stem side up. Place about 1 tablespoon of the filling in a 1.5-inch strip on the leaf’s widest part, perpendicular to the leaf’s stem end. Fold the leaf’s excess width over either end of the filling, then roll it like a cigar. Repeat until you run out of filling or grape leaves.
Pack the stuffed grape leaves tightly and standing upright in a large saucepan. Add water to the saucepan until the grape leaves are just submerged. Place a large heatproof bowl on top of the grape leaves to keep them submerged while they cook. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook this way for about 45 minutes, adding water as necessary, until rice is tender.
1 – If you don’t use grape leaves, cabbage would do. Be sure to select a cabbage with thin, pliable leaves.
2 – A few of you don’t care for lamb (neither did I for the longest time), so ground beef, chicken or turkey would be good substitutes. For that matter, 2 cups of pine nuts or chopped walnuts are good too, and their making this a vegetarian dish would be an additional advantage.
3 – After boiling them initially, and the grape leaves are cool enough to handle, you may want to cut away the thickest part of the stem, immediately around where it connects to the leaf. While it’s perfectly edible, the stout stem does make the leaves a bit more difficult to roll, and it would be somewhat chewy.
4 – As mentioned in the text, I modified the recipe above to replicate the Lebanese version of Stuffed Grape Leaves. I did so by adding to the lamb mixture 1/2 cup of pine nuts and 1 tablespoon of dried sumac.