Stuffed grape leaves are an age-old favorite in my house. Growing up in an Egyptian-Greek household, special occasions always called for stuffing some vegetable or leaf. Long, mean and green (and oh so delicious), grape leaves were always my favorite. Coming home from school, the pine-y pungent scent of cooked meat, rice, pine nuts and fresh grape leaves would hit me as soon as I walked through the front door. Immediately, my brother, sister and I would head straight to the pot cooking the delicacies and pop open the lid. We would scald our fingers as we popped in the still-steaming rolls. My mom would shoo us away. Once the dinner table was set, the stuffed grape leaves were piled high on a platter center-stage. As soon as our collective heads raised from prayer, it was an all-out war who would snatch the most grape leaves. Forget forks and manners, we grabbed by the fistful. It always seemed like my brother got the most.
In Cyprus, most of us have our own grapevines. We enjoy the fruit in the late summer, and some make their own wines (we never grew enough to make our own). Very often, we use every ounce of a produce: stem, seed, fruit and leaf. This is the origins of how grape leaves started to be consumed. In the late spring across the Mediterranean, young grapes come into season. First sprouts small, shiny, dark green leaves that slowly mature over the course of weeks and months. Then, the grapes begin to form, growing in bundles throughout the vines. While the grape leaves are still young, soft and malleable, the leaves are plucked, parboiled and turned into delicious meals. If you have your own leaves, choose ones that are rather young and no larger than your hand.
Stuffed grape leaves have been part of a mezze table for ages. There are many variations, including vegetarian options that use pine nuts, mint, raisins, currants, dill and more. Below is my family’s favorite version. It’s basic, but I suppose that’s how my kids like it. Enjoy.
Ingredients (makes approximately 25 grape leaves)
- Jar of grape leaves (or 25 fresh grape leaves, washed and parboiled)*
- ½ pound of ground lean beef or lamb
- ½ cup of long-grain white rice
- 2 sprigs chopped Italian parsley
- 2 fresh, crushed tomatoes
- 1 medium chopped onion
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cumin (optional)
- Several Tablespoons of Olive oil
- Juice from ½ lemon
Hint: This basic stuffing mixture can be used to stuff peppers, cabbage leaves, even hollowed-out zucchini. It’s all the same mix, it just depends on which vegetable is on hand and available to be stuffed or rolled.
*Note: For questions on how to parboil fresh grape leaves, please drop me a note below and I will explain. So easy!!
- Remove the grape leaves from the jar and gently ring out the extra fluid. On a plate or cooking board, roll out the grape leaves and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine raw meat, uncooked rice, parsley, tomatoes, onions, salt, pepper and cinnamon in a bowl until thoroughly mixed
- Take a single grape leaf at a time. Keep the stem side closer to you, vine side up. Add a teaspoon of the mixture at the base of the grape leaf and evenly distribute.
- Like you are swaddling a baby, wrap the sides inward and then slowly roll up, removing extra air and juice. When finished wrapping, set aside in a pile.
- In a large pot, line extra (ripped/broken) leaves, tomato skins, and/or onion peels on the bottom to prevent stuffed grape leaves from sticking.
- Place side by side in a tight formation in the pot the first layer.
- Add a few drops of lemon juice. Then, continue lining the second layer of the pot with more stuffed grape leaves.
- Continue layer by layer until all the grape leaves are through.
- After the top layer, add the olive oil liberally.
- Top the layers with more broken/discarded grape leaves.
- Fill the pot with ½ cup of water, or about ½ filled.
- Cover with a lid, bring to a slow boil, and then cook on Low for about 20 – 30 minutes. It is similar to cooking rice.
- Allow to cool, remove gently with a fork so as not to break or crumble. Serve with yogurt or tzatziki and a salad.
Do you have a special stuffed grape leaf recipe you’d like to share? I also love a vegan one that I will post soon. Let me know some of your favorites!
Discover your inner Aphrodite . . .