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Recipes

Heaven is a place like this

Hello foodies! Sorry for my erratic posts; I think I’ve realized that it may be a bit unrealistic for me to write posts over the weekend (weekend is Fri + Sat here) because I always seem to be busy doing something or being somewhere. So maybe for the most part this will become more of a weekDailyAmuseBouche. Haha.

Anyway, I spent the second week of my winter vacation back home in Jordan with my family, and as always, I was treated to my grandmother’s divine home cooking almost every day. Apart from seeing my family and friends, the familiar and comforting but ever-fabulous flavors of the dishes I’ve loved since my childhood are unquestionably my favorite part about being home. I am back to work in Dubai today and missing those delicious aromas and tastes already, but I thought it was high time to do some blogging about Middle Eastern dishes. And what better way to get that ball rolling than to feature my absolute favorite dish of all time: stuffed grape leaves.

Disclaimer: this dish is not for the impatient cook. Far from an amuse-bouche type of dist, it is very laborious and time-consuming to prepare, but trust me when I tell you that it is definitely worth it.

You may have heard of a version of this dish, the very famous Greek dolma: vine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs, cooked in oil, and served cold. Although this version of the dish also exists in my part of the world (known as yalanji), its better-known counterpart in Arab cuisine consists of vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced beef, cooked with tomato sauce, and served warm. On their own, stuffed grapeleaves are known in Arabic as wara’ enab or wara’ dawali. However, they are often served alongside stuffed zucchini, eggplant, and peppers, as well as some melt-in-your-mouth lambchops, in which case the dish is collectively know and mahshi, which literally means “stuffed.” As you can imagine “stuffing” grape leaves (or zucchini, eggplant and peppers for that matter) is no easy feat, and the preparation of this dish, like everything else my grandmother does, is a true labor of love. This is especially true considering the enormous quantity of food required to feed everyone in our hungry family on weekend family lunches. It is without doubt a high-ranking favorite among both young and old, and has the power to transform a ordinary meal into a special occasion.

The preparation goes something as follows: prepare stuffing, stuff and roll vine leaves, stuff other vegetables, pile high into a deep pot,  and cook for several hours. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. I once tried to help my grandmother with the stuffing process, and was extremely proud of myself when I finally managed to roll one that did not immediately fall apart….only to discover that in the meantime, my prolific grandmother had rolled about 20. I guess that’s what comes from 50 years of experience. I wonder how many grape leaves my grandmother has stuffed in her life…the average batch she cooks has at least 250, and she makes the dish at least 20 times a year, and has done so for over 50 years…so that makes at least 250,000 grape leaves. Holy crap. I love you, grandma.

Anyway…I cannot claim to have ever successfully cooked this dish myself, but here’s the method straight from grandma’s lips. The problem with grandma-style cooking is that she she never needs to use precise measurements because she has more than enough experience to know what looks just “right.” This recipe give you the basic proportions but perfecting the dish is something of a trial and error exercise that you will need to experiment with and tweak until you find a mix you like. And you will usually have to scale up the amounts below depending on how many people you plan to feed. A large pot like the one pictured here feeds 10-15 people.

You will need:

  • Stack of fresh flat grapeleaves
  • Assorted baby zucchini (x10), eggplant (x5), cored
  • 2 green peppers
  • 12 lamb chops

Stuffing

  • 1 cup white rice
  • 1 cup minced lamb
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp mixed Middle Eastern spices
  • 1 tsp very finely chopped parsely (almost minced) – optional
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil

Cooking sauce

  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp ghee
  • Room-temperature water

Dipping sauce (very similar to Greek tzatziki)

  • 4 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 large cucumber, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp crushed dried mint

Method:

1. Prepare vegetables:

Wash all vegetables thoroughly and gently pat dry with kichen towels.

Look for grape leaves (found at most Middle Eastern food stores or grocers) that are large and sturdy and quite dark green in color, as flimsier ones will keep breaking. Weed out leaves that contain tears or are unsuitable for stuffing. Alternatively, you can buy a jar of brine-preserved leaves, but fresh is definitely better.

Core zucchini and eggplant using an apple corer, taking care not to damage outside skin or make any holes in it.

2. Prepare stuffing

Wash rice once or twice under running cold water and drain well. Place in a medium bowl and toss with vegetable oil to coat. In another bowl, combine meat, salt, black pepper, mixed spices and parsley and mix well. Combine meat mixture and rice. l

3. Stuff

Lay first vine leaf flat with pointed edge facing away from you. Place about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of stuffing in the center of leaf (1). Fold bottom of leaf upward and tuck under rice (2), then fold sides of the leaf (3), and roll up tightly (4) to form a compact cylinder shape (5). Repeat until you have wrapped enough leaves to fill the majority of the pot you plan to cook with. Stuff cored zucchini, eggplant and peppers.

4. Assemble cooking pot

Line bottom of your pot evenly lamb chops, then zucchini, eggplant and peppers. The begin stacking the grapeleaves in concentric circles until you reach the top of the pot, but leave at least an inch of space. Combine lemon juice, tomato paste and ghee, add enough water to dissolve them, and drizzle evenly onto surface of pot, the pour in more plain water until all the grape leaves are submerged. Cover the top of the grape leaves with a heat-proof dish to keep everything in place, then place lid on pot and cook over medium heat until water starts to boil, the lower heat to medium-low and continue cooking for 3-4 hours. If water level drops too low, you can top it off with some more. After about 3 hours, you can start to sample-taste the grape leaves to test how cooked they are; they are “done” when they taste good to you. Some people prefer the rice cooked al dente, but I personally prefer it to be melt-in-your-mouth soft and squishy.

5. Serve

Uncover pot, remove plate, and place a large serving tray over the pot. Carefully flip the pot onto the tray, shake gently, then remove to reveal stacked dish (lamb chops will now be on top). Combine yogurt, cucumber, garlic and mint, mix well and serve alongside grape leaves.

My favorite way to eat this is to first squish/ mash my grape leaves a little with my fork, then dip them in the yogurt sauce before letting the savory, lemony, juicy flavors flood my senses…sheer heaven.

In good health,

F

* Stuffing method images (stage 3) compliments of mideats.com

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