The Best Mediterranean Stuffed Grape Leaves with different variations for everyone, from meat filling to vegan, with a technique that’s faster than the old-school methods many of us grew up using.
Mediterranean Stuffed Grape Leaves – A Tradition In My Kitchen
Whether you call them Dolmas, Lebanese stuffed grape leaves, Greek Dolmas or Palestinian Warak Dawali, stuffed grape leaves, are simply a classic comfort food of the various Mediterranean countries.
Having made stuffed grape leaves all my life, I have dabbled in perfecting the recipe I knew as a kid.
While rice and ground lamb are the way I knew grape leaves, as a young girl making stuffed grape leaves with my Syrian mother, times are a little different.
I now have a few vegans in my own family who want grandma’s yummy stuffed grape leaves, except without the meat.
I found it just as easy to create a vegetarian twist on the traditional stuffed grape leaf recipe, using barley and French lentils.
Both are delicious even if you are a meat lover.
Buying grape leaves is so much easier today than it used to be when I was growing up.
Living in a town along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, there were zero international markets, and certainly not an international section in the local grocery stores.
Our family would pile into the car a few times a year and drive into Washington, DC where there were a few Middle Eastern or Greek markets.
We would stock up on jars of grape leaves, rolled apricot sheets from Lebanon, which were fantastic and way ahead of the over-sugary fruit roll-ups we now have in the supermarket.
Of course there was a fantastic selection of olives in large barrels, floating around in a salted brine, and to-die-for cheeses, mostly goat and sheep milk cheeses.
Yep, we stocked up!
Can You Use Fresh Leaves From Grape Vines?
Freshly picked grape leaves can be used, if you have access to them, but they need to be softened for the making of stuffed grape leaves.
The grape leaves, used to make stuffed grape leaves, are picked fresh and brined in lemon juice and salt.
This process helps to tenderize the leaves, makes them easily digestible, and makes them easier to roll.
Home grown grape leaves, which I am attempting to do this year, can be prepped for rolling, in this same way.
A large pot of boiling water with lots of salt, provides the best home approach to preparing the leaves.
They are lowered into the boing water just long enough for the color to brighten but not fade, much as you would spinach, then transfer them to an ice water bath to stop them from cooking.
Grow Your Own Grape Leaves
Perhaps I’ve totally lost my mind, but this year I’ve decided to grow my own grapes for their leaves!
Sure, I’d love to think I will end up with an abundance of grapes, which I will use in a variety of ways; making my own wine won’t be one of them!
But, if the small spot I’ve designated, in my yard, to plant three vines, doesn’t harvest lots of grapes, at least I will have an abundance of my own organic leaves.
Old-School Technique Of Preparing Stuffed Grape Leaves
Since I was a kid, I watched my mom make stuffed grape leaves the way she was taught by the Syrian women in her family.
In a large bowl, grape leaves were separated and hung around the edges, making it easy to grab and roll.
The filling was raw rice, raw ground meat and lots of herbs and spices.
Once the grape leaves were rolled, they were layered in a deep pot or Dutch oven, just barely covered with enough water to immerse them, and over a low heat they underwent a gentle simmer cooking both the rice and meat together.
This ‘old-school’ method, while a longer method, it always allowed time for several to sit around the table to make these together and chat!
However now, with busy lives and little time to cook traditional style recipes I grew up with, I have devised different ways to obtain a classic recipe, but in half the time!
Making My Stuffed Grape Leaves On Television In Under 60-Minutes
That’s right, under 60-minutes!
It was on The Great American Recipe with PBS that I had the opportunity to share the BEST Mediterranean Stuffed Grape Leaves on national television.
For Behind The Scenes stories about this exciting opportunity and how I was able to wow the judges, read further here!
Preparing The Leaves
This will be the first step to having the grape leaves sorted out and ready for fast roll-up time. This is what you will want to do:
- Open the lid to the glass jar, empty the briny water out and carefully grab onto one of the cigar-like rolls of leaves. There is often 3 bundles tightly rolled inside the jar.
- Run the bundle under cold water, while slowly unrolling the bundle. Run the opened bundle under cold water to rinse much of the brine water off.
- On a parchment paper lined cookie sheet, separate one grape leaf at a time and lay them flat so they will be ready to roll when you are. Clip any steps sticking out. As delicate as the leaves appear, they are actually quite hearty, and don’t break easily.
What To Serve With Mediterranean Stuffed Grape Leaves
Mediterranean Cuisine is what I grew up cooking, and stuffed grape leaves were often served along with many other favorite Mediterranean dishes.
In my home, stuffed grape leaves could be served as a side dish along with other dishes, such as a Lamb Tajine, Lamb Chops (which I also made for television and were a hit), or Koftas (which I made on Guy’s Grocery Games).
Some Mediterranean cultures will also reheat their stuffed grape leaves in a little tomato sauce.
How To Store Leftover Grape Leaves
What to do with remaining grape leaves?
Very rarely are there leftover grape leaves in our home, because what doesn’t get eaten in the first serving, stays in the fridge for the week to nibble on all week as a delicious appetizer or quick lunch!
Of course stuffed grape leaves make for the perfect and complete meal to send the kids off to school with.
Don’t laugh, my kids often took stuffed grape leaves to school in their lunch and their teachers loved that I packed extra for them too.
But these little bundles of a complete meal in a bite are perfect for freezing.
Simply layer room temperature stuffed grape leaves in an airtight freezer bag and once thawed are perfectly reheated for later use.
What To Do With Leftover Stuffing From Stuffed Grape Leaves
Invariably, i end up with way more filling than I have leaves. Has that ever happened to you?
In truth, I often make extra filling on purpose so that I can use it in so many of my other favorite recipes.
Often in a Mediterranean home, cooking is done for larger gatherings than are common here in America.
Extended family drop in without notice, families value sharing a meal together and often there is more than one cook in the kitchen.
Therefore, stuffing things is a great way to feed a large crowd!
This type of filling is called ‘hushwa’ and my kids loved it enough to make it a main course on busy weeknights.
Sometimes I would add peas or chopped zucchini to it.
Equally delicious, though, is this same filling stuffed in peppers, hollowed out zucchini or squash and even hollowed out tomatoes.
What If I Don’t Like Grape Leaves?
If grape leaves are not something you grew up with but love the ingredients in the filling, I’ve got a backup plan for you!
Stuffed cabbage leaves, in my home, are often filled with this same filling, except I add a pinch of tomato paste to the meat while it’s cooking.
The addition of tomato paste adds a bit of acidity and tartness to the sweet cabbage leaves, offering a delicious contrast.
- 2 Large Saucepans
- Large strainer
- Large bowl
- Baking sheet pan
- Basting brush
- Cutting board and knife
- Airtight storage container
For the traditional stuffed grape leaves filling:
- Jarred grape leaves
- Ground meat
- White rice
- Pine nuts (optional)
- Olive oil
- Fresh lemon juice
- Fresh herbs, preferably parsley
- Chicken broth
For the vegan filling:
- Hulled barley
- French lentils
- Water or vegetable broth
- Remaining ingredients used in traditional filling, making these swaps.
BEST Mediterranean Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 2 Medium Saucepans
- Baking sheet pan
- 1 lb Jarred Grape Leaves tender grape leaves
- 1 1/2 lbs Ground meat ground beef or lamb
- 1 1/4 cups White rice
- 1/2 cup Onion finely chopped
- 1/4 cup Pine nuts optional
- 1/4 cup Olive oil extra for brushing
- 2 tbsp Fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup Fresh herbs Fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 2 tsp Salt or to taste
- 1 1/4 cup Chicken broth or water
- 1 tsp Coarse Kosher salt
- Vegan Version
- 1 1/4 cup Hulled barley
- 1 cup French lentils
- 3 cups Hot water
- Preparing Meat and Rice MixtureIn a medium-size saucepan, over medium heat, drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the bottom of the pot, add rice, 1 teaspoon salt and pine nuts and sauté for about 1-minute, while stirring. Add the broth, cover and cook for about 20-minutes.
- While the rice is cooking, place the remaining olive oil in a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, add the onions, 1 teaspoon salt and ground meat and sauté until all the pink is gone from the meat, stirring all the while.
- Once the meat is no longer pink, remove from the stovetop. Add the cooked rice to the meat mixture, along with the lemon juice, and fresh parsley, stir, cover and allow to sit while preparing the jarred grape leaves.
- Preparing Leaves Remove the grape leaves from the jar, rinse well and unfold them, separating each leaf, cutting off the stem end and laying it on a paper towel or across a large strainer. This step makes rolling the grape leaves much more efficient.
- On a cutting board or flat surface, place one leaf in front of you, shiny side down with the stem side close to you. Using a teaspoon, place a heaping teaspoon of the filled mixture at the end close to you. Fold over the edges along the sides, and begin to roll the filling inside the leaf in a tight 'cigar-like' roll. Place each rolled grape leaf in a large airtight container and continue to roll the remaining leaves. Don't throw away any remaining leaves, but rather place them on top of the rolled leaves to use later when heating the stuffed grape leaves.
- Preparing Vegetarian VersionUsing the exact ingredients as the meat stuffed leaves, simply replace the rice with barley, French lentils for the ground meat and hot water for chicken broth.
- In two separate medium size saucepans, drizzle equal amounts of olive oil in each pan, equal amounts of chopped onions in each. Add the barley to one of the pans, pine nuts and lentils to the other, stir, add lemon juice and salt to each. Add 1 1/2 cups of hot water to each pan, stir, lower the heat and cook until the water has evaporated, the barley is plump and lentils are soft. Once they cool, gently fold the lentils into the barley mixture and use this filling in the same way as preparing Mediterranean meat stuffed grape leaves above. Proceed with the instructions above for Preparing Leaves and rolling them.
- Heat and ServeSince the filling on either variation of stuffed grape leaves is already cooked, and the leaves are already soft from being brined, the stuffed grape leaves can remain in the fridge until you are ready to serve. Since this was a labor of love, and you now have about 50 stuffed grape leaves, simply place as many as you want to serve on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, brush lightly with olive oil, a pinch of coarse salt on top and place in a 325 degree oven for about 15-minutes.
- To prevent the tops from drying out while heating, place any leftover leaves on top to cover them while being heated.
- A tip for rolling small or torn leaves: since not all leaves will be perfectly shaped, simply overlap 2 badly shaped leaves and roll them as 1 whole leaf.