Lamb-Stuffed Fresh Grape Leaves are enveloped in culinary influences

It was a Wednesday in mid-May of last year, around lunchtime, when I received a text from my dad. It went like this:

“Hi, Sweetheart. I was out in the garden and saw some large grape leaves, and I thought of you. I cut some, washed, cleaned and coated them in a touch of olive oil. So if you would like them, let me know. Love you and thinking of you.”

The text was a welcomed bit of love and light in the middle of my work-from-home day. I replied with a very enthusiastic yes and, a few days later, swung by my folks’ house to pick up a bag filled with fresh grape leaves from their porch. I happily busied myself that weekend making stuffed grape leaves, my mind floating back to my college years.

At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to an art college in Oakland. The eldest sister of my oldest childhood friend lived and worked in San Francisco. Melba and Charlie, her beau at the time and now husband, took me under their wing, broadening my worldview by exploring their city’s neighborhoods, exposing me to arthouse films and having me over for rooftop barbecues paired with indie video rentals. Melba and I would often walk miles up and down the crazy hilly San Francisco streets to visit bakeries and eateries and take in the art and culture between her neighborhood of Nob Hill, the Marina District and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Other times, she and Charlie would come into Oakland and take me to their favorite restaurants in Berkeley: Indian, where I tried curries and biryani for the first time; Persian, for kebab and tahdig; Lebanese, where I experienced my first taste of tabbouleh, shawarma and falafel. And it was during these weekend excursions that I attended my first Greek festival, where I ate gyros, spanakopita and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) for the first time.

The experiences she exposed me to were crucial in developing who I became as a young adult. They also impacted the kinds of foods I seek out to eat and cook beyond the Mexican, Italian and classic American foods of my childhood. Thanks to my parents and aunties, I already had a good sense of who I was, but this exposure threw the doors wide open, showing me a world bigger than the one I knew as a child.

When I returned home, I would pay forward the invaluable lessons that Melba taught me by taking my sisters out as much as I could. Deb, my sister, who has been isolating with my parents since the start of the pandemic, told me the other day that while cooking a Mediterranean dinner for herself, Dad asked where she had learned to eat the way she did because it certainly wasn’t from him. She said, “Ani taught me.” That brought a smile to my face.

A personal spin on tradition

When Dad initially texted about the grape leaves, I hadn’t had time to plan a grocery order, so I used the ground beef I already had in the freezer. I opted to make Greek-style dolmades, braising them in a traditional lemon-forward liquid. I’ve made them many times this way, and as much as I love them, I have to admit that I especially love them with a more Middle Eastern spin. So a few weeks later, when Dad gave me a second bag of leaves, I had time to add ground lamb to my grocery order.

With variations of dolmas as staples in many cuisines from the Balkans, South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, many cultures claim these stuffed parcels’ origins. Dolmas, from the Turkish word dolmak, meaning “something stuffed,” according to Merriam-Webster, are made up of grape leaves, vegetables such as zucchini or bell peppers — or even fruits — stuffed with a savory or sweet and savory filling. Besides grape leaves, some cultures will also make dolmas using other leafy greens like cabbage, kale, collard greens and even fig leaves.

Besides Greek, I’ve had Lebanese, Turkish, Persian and Syrian-style dolmas. The recipe I’m sharing today is not authentic to any one style. I have taken all the things that I love about the different types of dolmas I’ve tried over the years and rolled them into one tasty little package.

I’ve seasoned the meat with warm spices and tomato paste, while a combination of stock and V8 juice forms the braising liquid. If you don’t have or want to use V8 juice, add a can of diced tomatoes with their juices to the braising liquid instead.

The use of fresh grape leaves makes these surprising delicate. Unlike their jarred counterparts, there is no overpowering brine. Don’t get me wrong; if I want stuffed leaves in the middle of winter, of course, I’ll pick up a jar and use brined leaves. I give them a good soak in boiling water to help leach out as much of the brine flavor as possible, especially when not using a heavy lemon-forward braising liquid.

Though I am choosing to use lamb, you can use any ground meat of your choice. Or make this recipe vegan by tossing chopped tomatoes, pine nuts, dried fruit like apricot or figs with rice, and using vegetable stock in place of chicken in the braising liquid.

How to roll a stuffed grape leaf.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

How to stuff and roll grape leaves

Grape leaf rolling takes practice, but once you have the technique down, it moves along rather quickly, especially if you do it assembly-line style:

  1. Hold a leaf by the little nubby stem and gather it at the base where the stem attaches to the leaf. Snip the stem and a bit of the surrounding base with kitchen shears. The stem and the base where it attaches to the leaf are tough and hinder the rolling process. Discard the stems. Repeat with remaining leaves.
  2. The leaves have two sides: a smooth side and the side with raised veins. Place 4 to 6 leaves, vein-side up, onto your work surface with the leaves’ big center tip facing away from you.
  3. Place a tablespoon of filling in the center just above the area where you cut the stem away. Shape the filling into a thin log about 2 inches in length.
  4. Pull the two bottom portions up over the filling (A.)
  5. With fingertips from both hands resting on the now-covered filling, roll the filling back toward you until you can tuck the leaf tips covering the filling just under it (B.).
  6. Now, slowly roll away from you about a third of the way up the leaf, then tuck each side toward the center (C.).
  7. Continue tucking in the sides and rolling, ending with the big tip on the bottom (D.).
  8. Repeat with the remaining leaves.
Dolmas in a cooking pot layered in a circular fashion.

When placing the dolmas in the pot, layer them in a circular fashion with one end touching the pot’s wall and the other facing towards the empty middle space. This ensures all the dolmas are evenly weighted down by the plate during cooking and won’t unfurl.

(Anita L. Arambula/Confessions of a Foodie)

Lamb-Stuffed Fresh Grape Leaves

Long-grain rice is the usual choice for dolmas. I prefer a medium or short grain, but use whatever white rice you have on hand. A pro tip for layering the grape leaves into the cooking pot: Stack them seam-side down in a circle with one end up against the pot’s wall, leaving the pot’s center empty. By layering the stuffed leaves in a circle formation, you ensure that the plate used to weigh down the leaves comes into contact with all of them. If you stack the leaves willy-nilly into the pot, the leaves in the center won’t come into contact with the plate, and as the rice expands, they will unfurl during the cooking process. I used a 3.5-quart pot for this recipe.

Makes 8 servings as an appetizer or 4-6 as a main course

TO PREP THE RICE:
1 cup medium-grain rice, such as Calrose
Boiling water

TO PREP THE LEAVES:
40 fresh grape leaves, washed well
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Boiling water

FOR THE FILLING:
1 pound ground lamb, preferably organic and grass-fed
1½ cups chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup chopped cilantro, leaves and stems
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
2 fat cloves garlic, minced
4 green onions chopped, white and green parts
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1 rounded teaspoon allspice
1 rounded teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

TO BRAISE:
1 lemon, sliced
1 large Roma tomato, sliced
1 can Original V8 juice
32 ounces (1 quart) chicken stock, plus 2-3 cups more if needed
Water, optional, as needed

TO SERVE:
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
Pinch of kosher salt
Chopped parsley
Lemon wedges

Add rice to a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 10 minutes. Drain, rinse and set aside.

Layer grape leaves in a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt and cover with boiling water. Set aside to soak while you prepare the filling.

To a large mixing bowl, add all the ingredients for the filling. Add the drained rice. Mix well to incorporate.

Cover the bottom of a 3.5-quart pot with the lemon and tomato slices and place near your work area.

Pull four grape leaves from the casserole dish. Hold a leaf by its stem and gather it around the base where it attaches to the leaf. Trim away the stem and the base where it attaches. Repeat with the other three leaves. Place the four trimmed leaves vein-side up on a work surface with the top tips facing away from you. Add a tablespoon of filling in the center of each leaf just above the area you trimmed, forming it into a log.

Starting with the leaf closest to you, pull the bottom two parts of the leaf up and over the stuffing. Place fingertips of both hands on the covered stuffing and slowly roll back, just until you can tuck the leaves’ tips under the stuffing. Now roll up halfway. Tuck the two sides of the leaves in toward the center (as if you’re rolling a burrito), then continue rolling and tucking as you go, until the tip of the top leaf is under the stuffing. Place the rolled grape leaf seam-side down into the stockpot, with one end of the rolled leaf touching the pot wall. Repeat with the remaining leaves, adding them to the pot stacked upon each other in a circle formation, always with one end touching the pot wall, leaving the pot’s center empty.

Once all leaves have been rolled and layered into the pot, pour in the V8 juice. Place the pot on medium-high heat. Put a plate upside-down into the pot to weigh down the grape leaves (a salad or dessert plate works best for me). Pour in the chicken stock until it covers most of the plate. If you need more liquid, use water or more stock. To ensure the plate doesn’t flip or move out of place during cooking, add a small heat-proof bowl half-filled with water on top of the dish. Once the liquid comes to a boil, immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1½ hours.

Carefully remove the bowl and plate from the pot. Let the grape leaves rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Just before serving, stir the olive oil into the yogurt, adding salt to taste. Top with the chopped parsley.

To serve, add grape leaves to a plate, pouring some of the broth over them. Add some Greek yogurt on the side for dipping and a few lemon wedges to squeeze over the leaves.

Recipe is copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and is reprinted by permission from Confessions of a Foodie.

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at [email protected].




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