There are many varieties and words for stuffed grape leaves: it can be served hot or cold, with lamb, beef or vegetarian style. Stuffed grape leaves are made in various ways and with different names within the different regions of the Mediterranean. Some of the names are dolma, yaprak, calque, and waraq inab to name a few. Although stuffed grape leaves is the most common variety, this dish can be mixed and matched with literally be any vegetable that is stuffed with a mix of rice, meat, and spices.
Our adventure began with a special request from Andrew’s Aunt Linda for us to make waraq inab at our first hosted dinner party. Knowing we bit off much more than we could chew, I did what any middle eastern boy would do and ran straight to my mother for help!
After arranging to have Mom (Najat) tell me what we needed to buy, we set off to our local stores. Our journey included a stop at Marshall’s for a large cooking pot (an essential in ALL Middle Eastern houses), Trader Joe’s for groceries, a local Middle Eastern butcher shop on Atlantic Avenue and the legendary Middle Eastern Market called Sahadi’s in Brooklyn NY. Here’s what we picked up food wise:
- Ground Lamb- 4 Lbs
- Cuts of Leg of Lamb
- Lemons- 6 to 7
- All Spice- Table Spoon
- Grape Leaves- One Large Can (we only used one of the two bundles in the can)
- Big Onions- 5
- Garlic- 2 cloves
- Jasmine Rice- 3 Cups
- Salt- Table Spoon
- Olive Oil
- More Lemons- depends on how lemony you like your Stuffed Grape Leaves. Don’t be shy though, nobody we know has ever said or thought, “these grape leaves are too lemony”
Other Things we got at Sahadi’s:
- Spicy Humus (yum)
- Baba Ganoush
With all our ingredients we were ready to get to work! Knowing there was a lot of prep work to do with this meal, we decided to get started a good 5 hours before the guests would arrive. We decided to use Skype to have both my parents help explain the proper ratios and how to mix the meat properly. Also, we needed oversight on how to prep the grape leaves and onions to be stuffed. The only problem with this was that my mom and dad do not agree on many little things, so why on earth I thought they would agree on something as important as this is beyond me! After listening (and laughing hysterically) to them argue over how much rice to mix with the lamb and how much lemon should be use, the universe decided to do what it always does, and have my mom win.
The Step by Step Break Down
- Mix 4 lbs of ground lamb, 3 cups of rice (2.5 cups would be ideal), a table spoon of salt, some pepper, a tea spoon of All Spice, and a whole diced garlic head (many cloves) until the ingredients are evenly mixed.
- Cut the top off the onions, then at the bottom cut a small cone to get the root all the way out of the onion. Make a horizontal cut from the center of the onion down ONE side only to make a slit. Boil onions in water for 5-10 minutes (depending on size) to make onions soft and easy to spread apart without the layers tearing.
- Soak bundle of grape leaves in a bowl of water (this is done because we used grape leaves that were soaking in a salty brine and we did not want the dish to be too salty).
- Line the bottom of the large pot with the cuts of the leg of lamb
- Take individual layers of the onion, put a table spoon of the Lamb mix in it and roll it closed and place the stuffed onions on the bottom of the pot. Make sure to pack the onions in tightly next to each other. Also, it is a good idea to leave let gravity work here, so put the end of the roll (flap) facing down so the onions don’t open during cooking. Do this until you have no more onions to stuff or until you feel you have enough stuffed onions.
- Take a table spoon of the lamb mix and put in the middle of the grape leaves, fold sides over the lamb and roll the grape leaf tight “like a burrito!” as my mom was yelling at us via Skype. Make sure the grape leaves are on top of the onions and laying flap down compactly in the pot.
After all of the lamb mix is done, and your large pot is full of the stuffed onions and grape leaves, you are ready to cook! Cooking time takes about an hour to an hour and twenty minutes, and before you begin cooking you need to do the following:
- Squeeze lemons into the pot (we used about 6 lemons and could have used more) to your liking, but we recommend a lot of lemons. If you bring lemons from the Hapke family tree across country in your backpack, even better.
- Salt: put about a tablespoon full of salt on top of the grape leaves, and do not worry about getting it mixed through out the pot. It will all get mixed together by the end.
- Pepper: a decent covering of pepper is needed, just be mindful that this is not supposed to be overpowering.
- Olive oil: drizzle olive oil over the grape leaves, get a good covering of the olive oil, we probably used about 4 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Water: fill the pot until it is about an inch below the top of the grape leaves.
- Put a heavy plate on the grape leaves and cover the pot.
Now, we needed about 4 phone calls to my mother to understand how the actual cooking process went (I got 4 versions of how she does it, I am just not sure she knows it was 4 DIFFERENT versions). In between the shouts of “It is so simple, how do you not understand?” and “Hey Stupid!, like this!” Andrew and I did crack the code (And you thought the Di Vinci Code was an edge of your seat thriller that you couldn’t put down, eh? Not even close compared to this!).
Oh right, back to cooking, so we put the covered pot on the stove on high for twenty minutes or so until the mixture of oil, water, lemon, salt and pepper is boiling. Then once the mixture is at a boil, reduce the flame to medium for another 40 minutes. After about 40 minutes you will see the grape leaves have expanded. That is why we have the heavy plate on top of everything, to keep things under control. Then we removed the lid to reduce the liquid. After the liquid mixture reduced down to a level you could barely see through the grape leaves, and the smell had completely overtaken the house, we removed the pot from the stove and let it sit for about five minutes.
Serving the dish: this is a fun and potentially dinner-party-shattering part of the preparation. The way this dish is transferred to a serving tray is to place the tray on top of the pot, then flip the whole thing over. If this is done correctly you won’t drop everything on the floor (which would be the time to promptly pick up the phone and order chinese food, or if you are like me just use the 10-300 second rule and pick up the food and yell “Game On!”), and you end up with the grape leaves on the bottom the onions on top and the bits of lamb sitting on that with the juices running throughout everything.
The dish should be flavorful, a bit tart and the flavors should be strong but not overpowering. No single element of the complexity of the ingredients should really jump out at you. We had some good wine (both red and white work) and we made a simple salad of romaine lettuce, mixed greens, finely cut onions, and tomatoes. For the dressing we used the traditional lemon, olive, and salt mixture. Also, we put the Humus, and Baba Ganoush into two different bowls and drizzled olive oil on top of both of them. When the guests arrived we heated up the Pita in the toaster, and cut the pita into nice triangles and served it as appetizers.
The Result: SUCCESS !
I would say the whole dinner party was a rousing success. Aunt Linda loved the food and so did the rest of our guests, a few of whom had never tried this version of grape leaves before. It was also a success because we had a good amount of left overs and as my mom says, “The best Dolma is next day Dolma.” This is when all the lemon and juices get soaked into everything (especially the onions) and they taste amazing!
There you have it, the maiden voyage of MiddleFeast! Now, we challenge you to step up to the plate and share a cooking experience of your own or comment on how this one could have been made tastier. Even better, have you tasted a different versions of this meal? Better still, have you dared to attempt the “Great Grape Leaf Feast” for yourself? Tell us how it went!