Stuffed vegetables, and particularly stuffed grape leaves, are one of the most famous Middle Eastern appetizers. There hot versions and cold versions, meat-based stuffings and rice-based stuffings, rolls that are short and fat, and rolls that are long and skinny. Because Hungry Husband particularly favors the style commonly found in Egypt, that’s the recipe I make most often and what I am going to share with you today.
But first, a funny story.
The first year we were in the Middle East, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to cook from my neighbors, and grape leaves were one of the most difficult things. It was several months of many attempts before I felt like my grape leaves were ready to be presented to anyone, but finally decided to serve them one night when we had guests. Our friends came over, with their four boys, and I proudly (and nervously) put out plates of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed zucchini and eggplant, macaraoni with béchamel sauce, and a few salads.
One of the boys, who was about 8 years old then, took one look at the table and whispered something to his mother, who burst out laughing, much to her son’s apparent dismay. He repeated himself, out loud to the rest of us this time, and said, “I want white man’s food!” Trying to maintain composure, his mother asked, “What is ‘white man’s food’ exactly?” To which he confidently answered, “Popcorn!”
Turns out he had recently studied the story of the American Thanksgiving tradition in school, and learned that popcorn was one of the featured dishes at that meal, making it (in his mind) a white man’s food. (I’m pretty sure it was the Native Americans that brought the popcorn.) So he naturally expected that, if dining at the house of Americans, he would be served popcorn. Poor guy; he was so traumatized by our laughter that he refused to eat anything that night, and to this day the story still comes up every time we see our friends.
If you are in America, you probably won’t be able to find fresh grape leaves, which is a pity as they are the best, but you can most likely find canned varieties in either the “ethnic foods” aisle or near to the pickles. Make sure to soak and then rinse these very well in hot water to remove the brine. Fresh grape leaves are best early in the summer, when they are very tender and somewhat small (about the size of an adult’s palm), and women will buy crates to freeze for use in winter. Not having had that luxury this year, I too am relegated to purchasing the preserved variety from a grocer.
STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES (EGYPTIAN-STYLE)
- 1 cup short-grain rice
- Equal amounts cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, and dill, finely chopped to make about 1 cup total
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- Salt and pepper
- 1 onion, as finely diced as you can get it
- ½ lb. grape leaves, rinsed well and any stalks removed
- 2-3 tomatoes, sliced (optional)
- 5-6 cloves garlic (optional)
- Enough boiling chicken broth or water to cover rolled-up leaves (amount will vary depending on your pan)
Making the rice: heat the oil in a pan, add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the tomato paste, chopped greens, a healthy amount of salt and pepper, and stir for a moment. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes until all the grains are well-coated and everything is evenly mixed. Take off the heat and let it cool.
Assembling the grape leaves: I suggest getting your assembly line set up in this particular order (assuming you are right-handed): grape leaves on the left, cutting board or plate directly in front of you, rice mixture behind the cutting board, and cooking pot to the right. This will make it easy to keep everything in order. Take a grape leave and put it vein-side up on the cutting board in front of you, with the base of the leaf closest to you. Take about 1 tsp. of the rice mixture and spread it in a thin horizontal line as pictured:
Then, fold the bottom of the leaf up over the rice. Next, fold the sides in, and then roll the leaf up from the bottom, tucking in any stray pieces. You should end up with a tight roll; if it’s loose do it will come apart during cooking so you probably want to re-do it. I usually use my finger as a guide for how big it should be so that they all turn out approximately the same size.
Cover the bottom of your cooking pot with any torn pieces of leaves, or, alternatively, slices of tomatoes. Place the rolls into a deep cooking pot as you make each one, trying to keep them as tightly packed as possible. I like to place a clove of garlic here and there, a tip I picked up from a neighbor, although I’m honestly not sure it does anything in terms of adding flavor. Depending on the width of your cooking pot, you may end up with multiple layers, which is fine. Once they’re all in, place a heavy plate or lid on top of the layers inside the pot to hold them in place; this will help them to not come apart during cooking. Pour in the boiling water or chicken broth, enough to just barely come up to the top layer of leaves. Cover the pot and simmer over the lowest heat possible until the leaves are tender and the rice is cooked thoroughly. Remove the plate/lid weighing down the leaves, and—assuming there is no or very little liquid left at this point—turn the pot upside down onto a plate so that the grape leaves fall out in a nice little pile. This will save your fingers from the agony of trying to remove each one individually. Serve hot and with a dressing of yoghurt, garlic and mint on the side.