Tender grape leaves stuffed with lamb, rice and herbs for the traditional stuffed grape leaf lover (Dolmas), also a vegan version stuffed with barley and French lentils.
Family Tradition Through My Kitchen
Growing up in a Mediterranean rich, ethnic home, ‘we cook a lot’! But cooking was always more meaningful for me than just the eating. It was a time for many to gather together in the kitchen, put on an apron, get your hands dirty and ‘talk’ a lot! It was a time for laughter, sometimes tears and always a time to solve problems and sometimes gossip.
Stuffed grape leaves are time consuming yet worth every minute. Not just because they are so delicious to eat but because the time shared together in the assembly line process of making them, gave my sisters and me lots of fun talk-time with our mom, and that is where my most treasured memories were built!
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 store.
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 rollups 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!
Today, though, when selecting the grape leaves you will buy to make your stuffed grape leaves, you will notice they come from California, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Any of the brands you find will be perfect, except for one important thing to look out for; the color of the leaves you want to buy must be a light green and not a dark green!
Contrary to what common sense might tell us, the greener grape leaves are still tough, and chewy. In the past when I have bought those, not yet knowing there would be a difference, and thinking for sure the faded green grape leaves must be old or not well loved.
I was wrong. When grape leaves are picked for cooking, they must be blanched long enough to tenderize them and then quickly packed in a heavy salty brine water. So, make sure not to buy the pretty dark green grape leaves. You will end up biting into all your hard work in rolling the stuffed grape leaves, the vein down the center of the leaf will still be tough and all the filling will fall out onto your plate, to which you will throw the leaf away, as I did. The tender leaves are delicious down to the last bite.
Traditional Stuffed Grape Leaves Or Vegan
However you choose to stuff the grape leaves, they will fast become a family favorite. In my family, I now have a few that don’t eat meat. I can’t help but be reminded of the line in the film Big Fat Greek Wedding: “You don’t eat not meat? Okay, have lamb”! That didn’t work with my daughter. So, I created a French lentil filling for her that looks similar to what the rest of the family is eating and she loved it, in fact everyone loved those as well!.
Preparing The Grape Leaves
If the leaves are freshly picked, they need to be rinsed and blanched in salted, boiling water to soften them, then quickly dropped into a large bowl of cold water, then drained for wrapping.
If the leaves are from a jar, they first must be rinsed and carefully separated, making certain to snip off the stem. The filling must also be prepared; rice is rinsed and drained, meat is raw, onions or nuts are often sautéed then added to the rice and meat. Then the rolling/wrapping begins.
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.
How To Make Stuffed Grape Leaves
Mediterranean Cuisine is what I grew up cooking, and while every Mediterranean family has preserved their own recipe for stuffed grape leaves, the recipe itself has taken many twists and turns throughout the generations of passing it down.
Meat, most often lamb, and rice were the traditional filling I grew up with. As I went out into the world and made friends with other people of similar roots, I realized just how many different variations there were on stuffed grape leaves. I myself have even made changes on my mother’s recipe and will pass that down to my grandchildren.
Persian style grape leaves often make their version, with sweet and sour flavors, Pomegranate molasses lending to both the sweet and the sour aspect. Turkish style grape leaves often have nuts inside the filling.
Some use mint as the herb while others use oregano or cinnamon. Lemon or tomatoes vary in each of the recipes also, depending where you prefer your acidity to come from.
Rolling or folding stuffed grape leaves into a square is also a matter of tradition. Each culture passed on their style and presentation of this dish. Where did stuffed grape leaves originate from and how were they first prepared? Hah! I’m not even going to touch that! A war could be started over that, so let’s just say, they originated from the heart of a kitchen!
3 Steps To Making Stuffed Grape Leaves
Three Steps are involved in the making of stuffed grape leaves, no matter which one you will choose to make.
- Preparing the leaves, as described above, so they are ready to roll
- Preparing the filling
- Rolling and cooking the stuffed grape leaves
Traditional Stuffed Grape Leaves
Traditional Stuffed Grape Leaves. This is the way I grew up making stuffed grape leaves. Uncooked ground lamb (or beef), uncooked rice, sautéed onions, lemon juice, herbs and spices get mixed together and are ready to place a little cigar size bundle of filling on top the grape leaf and roll it up.
When making traditional stuffed grape leaves, layers upon layers of rolled stuffed grape leaves get stacked inside a large pot, broth or heavily seasoned water is added only up to the top layer. A plate is placed on top the heap of rolled leaves to keep them in place, with the lid to the pan, on top to keep the steam inside. This is simmered low and slow until the water appears to have been absorbed into the rice.
Vegan Stuffed Grape Leaves
Vegan Stuffed Grape Leaves. This style of making stuffed grape leaves can be done a day or so in advance. A pot of barley gets cooked and a separate pot of French lentils is cooked with tiny chopped carrots, onions, celery, herbs and spices so that each is cooked and flavored separately.
Once the barley and the lentils cool, they are mixed together and take on the same appearance as a cooked version of ground meat and rice. Barley has such a creamy texture when cooked and the French lentils often look a bit like ground meat. Cooking the lentils in a heavily flavored broth with lots of chopped vegetables, garlic, and spices makes the lentil so delicious, all by themselves.
Quick Stuffed Grape Leaves
Quick Stuffed Grape Leaves. While this may seem like cheating, I assure you the taste is equally as delicious and there is no guess work in whether the rice is cooked or not. Zero bursting factor of the leaves when they cook either. Yes, sometimes the traditional stuffed grape leaves, if not rolled tightly or a plate is not on top when cooking, or too much broth has been added, the rolls can burst. Not all, but often a few.
So, in the quick method, the ground meat is sauteed, rice is cooked, both cooked meat and cooked rice, along with herbs and spices get mixed together. The cooked filling is rolled into the grape leaves, layered in a baking dish with each layer getting brushed with olive oil, covered tightly and baked on a low oven until hot. All the guess work is removed. You know the filling is cooked and you are able to taste it before stuffing the grape leaves, but be certain to cover tightly when warming in the oven so the leaves don’t dry out.
Serving Stuffed Grape Leaves
A table spread with numerous Middle Eastern or Greek dishes often accompanies the luscious heap of stuffed grape leaves. Tzatziki, a cucumber and yogurt dip is often served with stuffed grape leaves, or simply a bowl of garlic and olive oil infused yogurt. Homemade bread or Simit, a Turkish sesame seed bread is delightful with stuffed grape leaves, as is a platter of cheeses and olives. Meze, also known as tapas, is a style of eating throughout Mediterranean regions and is quite honestly my favorite way to dine!
Stuffed Grape Leaves – A Family ClassicCourse: Appetizers u0026amp; Tapas, MediterraneanCuisine: Mediterranean
Tender grape leaves stuffed with lamb, rice and herbs for the traditional stuffed grape leaf lover.
Grape Leaves – rinsed and laid flat, ready to prepare
Ground lamb or beef – 1 1/2 pounds
Rice or Barley – 1 1/4 cup
Onion – 1/4 cup sautéed in olive oil
Fresh Parsley – 1/4 cup, finely chopped
Salt – 1 teaspoon or to taste, for filling, plus 1 teaspoon for broth or water
Lemon juice – 1 tablespoon for filling, plus 1 tablespoon for broth
Stock or water – enough to just barely cover the top layer of stuffed grape leaves
- Mix the meat, rice, sautéed onion, parsley, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in a medium size bowl. Mix it really well, with your hands.
- Take a very small amount of filling, about 1 1/2 teaspoons, shape into a cigar and place at the wide end of the grape leaf. Roll up, while folding sides in. (my video shows how this is done).
- Place each roll stacked into a pot large enough to accommodate the stuffed grape leaves with a few inches empty up top. Place first row going one direction, the second row, another direction.
- Slowly pour the broth or water with lemon and salt into the pot, taking care not to disturb the leaves. Often I prefer to boil the broth or seasoned water first and add it already hot, to get things cooking right away, but do add carefully.
- Place a plate, or lid to a smaller pot, inside the pot on top of the leaves to weight them down. Cover the pot with its lid.
- Slowly bring to a simmer and let is cook on low until the liquid appears to be gone, about 45 minutes.
- Cool and remove the cooked stuffed grape leaves carefully, one by one.
- For the vegan version, simply swap out 1 1/2 cups of cooked lentils in place of the ground meat. Either barley or rice can be used, as you prefer.