What is the dish that takes hours to make and minutes to disappear? Any clue?!
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Other than being a scrumptious Middle Eastern Dish, rolling grape leaves is more of a therapeutic ritual that radiates rare comfort and sparks a particular thrill.
A few hours spent on rolling those green gossamer leaves might hurt your back a little, yet it will nourish your soul and clear up your mind.
Since the circuit breaker was lifted, I find myself leaning towards spending quality time and have meaningful conversations with one or a couple of good friends over being an empty voice lost in a noisy space.
On August 21, I took the opportunity of celebrating the Orthodox Feast of St. Mary (also known as the assumption of St. Mary) to share my culinary rituals associated with that Christian feast with a new American friend that I was lucky to meet a few months before the COVID pandemic rattles our life.
My typical culinary ritual to celebrate St. Mary’s assumption Feast was to roll grape leaves while listening to the legendary voice Fayrouz, the Lebanese iconic singer, and sipping traditional cardamom coffee.
In what seems to be a remote past, across the Middle East, rolling and stuffing grape leave was a monthly or bi-weekly communal party.
Stay-at-home women who shared the same building used to eagerly gather at the place of one of them. Each bringing over her own stuffing and grape leaves to embark along with her female neighbors/friends on a rolling and stuffing marathon.
This several-hour food ceremony eventually entailed some original rituals— such as serving cardamom coffee, fortune-telling, exchanging pleasantries, venting, giggling, weeping, and certainly bragging about each secret ingredient of this iconic dish.
This food tradition sparked a unique joy, that is hard to replicate. The older generation of women who left the Middle East to settle in the first world keeps ruminating to date about those precious moments.
“Cooking together with friends and neighbors was a therapeutic practice, they were repleting us with energy and warmth. Human closeness is what keeps us going and we are doomed without it”, as one octagenarian Egyptian immigrant woman currently residing in the US once told me.
While for the last decade, the Middle East, like the rest of the world, was flooded by technology gadgets and plagued by lack of time and patience, these grape leaves parties became somehow extinct, as well as the values associated with them.
Nowadays, working women tend to entrust their retired parents with this assignment or they would order their pre-rolled grape leaves from a trusted home-based food caterer.
This recipe of stuffed grape leaves is a variant of the original one made with rice and meat. Mine is by far atypical and revolutionary. At some point in my life, I realized that I tried enough variants of this dish, good and bad, which qualifies me to concoct my signature one.
I chose to stuff mine with bulgur and ground chicken mixed with aromatic herbs and gently simmer it in a homemade bone broth seasoned and infused with a generous array of spices and herbs.
Despite what my mom thinks of my cross-cultural recipe, I reiterate modestly that I am fond of my rendition and I won’t trade it for any other. Mine comes out perfectly juicy, lemony, deeply seasoned, feather-light, most importantly healthier and guilt-free.
The labor-intensive dish has a wide appeal for ostensible reasons. The paper-thin briny grape leaves encase a juicy traditional mix of rice and meat, either beef or lamb or only rice. The stuffing is traditionally spiked by an assortment of pungent spices such as cardamom, cumin, allspice, and cinnamon.
After the leaves are stuffed, they are snuggly lined in circular layers in a round deep pan. Garlic gloves are scattered among the layers to infuse the broth, which is added as the last step, with its precious essential aroma and astringent taste.
The energy and time that go into the stuffing and rolling grape leaves is a labor of love served to those who well-deserve it.
Stuffed Grape Leaves & Yogurt Mint-Cucumber Sauce
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Serves 10-12 people
- 1/2 Kg of ground chicken (thighs and breast) see notes
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 cup bulgur, rinsed and drained
- 1 cup of mixed aromatic greens finely chopped (parsley, cilantro, dill, mint)
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
- salt and pepper
The Grape Leaves
- 4 cups of water
- 500 grams of brined or fresh grape leaves
- 1 tablespoon of oil (canola or olive oil)
The Cooking Liquid
- The juice of one lemon
- 2 cups of broth (vegetables or beef, or a mix)
- 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil
- 4 cloves of garlic, slivered
- 2 teaspoons of tomato paste
Yogurt Mint Sauce
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 teaspoon of dry mint
- 1/4 cup of cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Prepare the stuffing: Add the bulgur to a frying pan with hot oil and coat the bulgur with oil and stir for a couple of minutes. Turn off the heat and let the bulgur come to room temperature
- Prepare the stuffing. Add the ground chicken to a deep mixing bowl along with the cooled bulgur, greens, and spices.
- Blanch the grape leaves. Bring a heavy bottom pan half full with water to a simmer. Add one tablespoon of oil. Toss in the brined grapes for no more than 6- 8 minutes. Drain the water, remove the stems with a sharp knife, and let the leaves come to room temperature.
- Stuff and roll the leaves. Lay each leave flat, with the shiny side face down. Place a cylinder of stuffing in the lower end of the leave (stem direction). Fold the sides and tightly roll the leaf to form a cigarette shape. Place the roll seam side down in the heavy bottom pot. Repeat the same steps with all the leaves, leaving no space among the rolls in the pan. Scatter the slivered garlic gloves among the layers of rolls. When the pot is already lined with all the rolls, add the warm stock mixed with lemon, tomato paste, olive oil, or butter.
- Cook the grape leaves. Place a ceramic or heat resistant dish on top of the pan, to press against the rolled grape leaves. That step will keep the rolls snug in the pot during the simmering, and prevent them from falling apart. On medium heat, bring the liquid covering the rolled leaves to a vigorous boil for 8-10 minutes, and then lower the heat to the minimum, half cover the pot and let the pot lightly simmer for one hour or more until the grape leaves are cooked thoughout. Make sure to add more stock whenever the liquid runs low in the pan. Enough liquid in the pan will ensure a juicy rolled grape leaves and prevent the bottom of the pan to burn.
- Serve the dish. Uncover the pan, try one a one or two rolled grape leaves from the top layer, if the stuffing is cooked through, and the leaves are soft and not stringy, turn of the heat. Let the pan cool down for at least 20 minutes. Tilt the pan to discharge some of the liquid into a sauceboat and then carefully invert it over a large enough plate. (see notes).
- Decorate the dish with lemon wedges, water with some of the reserved cooking liquid, and serve it with the yogurt-Mint-Cucumber sauce (recipe follows).
- In a medium ceramic or glass deep dish, mix together greek yogurt, fresh and dry mint, sliced cucumber, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Keep chilled in the fridge until you serve it next to the rolled grape leaves.
- Coating the bulgur in hot oil before adding it to the stuffing, protects its nutty texture from getting mushy given the long cooking process.
- I advise against using ground chicken made only from breasts as it would be fairly dry. Opt for a mix of ground breasts and thighs for a juicy taste and soft texture.
- Make sure to wear heatproof gloves when you invert the pan to protect your skin from the hot dripping liquid.