Growing up in Memphis, I have had the great fortune to be surrounded by a strong Lebanese influence via the many sweet friends and families close to me who share this special heritage. Many Lebanese immigrants settled in the south after arriving at Ellis Island to start grocery or dry goods businesses, and their descendants have remained, flourished and are certainly part of our shared southern culture. Known for their amazing Mediterranean fare, the Lebanese community is loyal, loving and very talented in the kitchen. Friends from childhood have included me in their family celebrations, sharing traditions which typically revolve around mouth-watering food often characterized by olive oil, herbs, garlic and lemon flavors.
I have known Rosemary Shaw and her sweet children for almost 18 years now and have gobbled up many a stuffed grape leaf, lots of hummus, kebbeh and tasty tabouleh in her lovely home. My husband is one quarter Lebanese and has that great dark hair and olive complexion that makes me look pink next to him, even in the summer, but we both share a deep appreciation for – make that hankering for – Lebanese food. Almost three years ago when Pearse and I married, Rosemary honored us and celebrated their shared Lebanese heritage at our wedding by preparing HUNDREDS of stuffed grape leaves that were served at our reception. It was a most meaningful and delicious gesture that I will never, ever forget. Because of my great respect for the finished product, I wanted to spend some time in Rosemary’s kitchen and learn from her as she prepared for her family’s Christmas feast. We were rockin’ and rolling hundreds of these delicious stuffed treasures. I found the exercise to be very therapeutic, and having great company made it all the more enjoyable. While the process is highly labor intensive, it was easy enough for me to get the hang of it, and I did have a very good teacher. This just might become my signature dish!
What you will need:
- Grape Leaves (approx. 4 jars)
Rosemary remembers growing up having grape vines in her back yard for this very purpose. They would harvest the leaves in the spring and can them until time to use. The California grape leaves that we used came from none other than the Jerusalem Market on Summer Ave. Prepare them by washing the brine from the leaves and carefully clipping off the stems.
- 3 lbs ground chuck (this is the American take on a classic recipe that traditionally calls for ground lamb)
- 3/4 cups of uncooked rice per pound of meat = 2 1/4 cups total fort this mixture
- Juice of 7 lemons (Minutemaid makes a handy squeeze bottle of fresh lemon juice).
- teaspoon of garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons of minced garlic
- salt and pepper to taste
Rock and Roll:
Using a cutting board or other mat, place a cleaned, stemless leaf flat, pretty smooth side facing down, raised side up.
One of the most important things to remember is not to stuff them too full, as the contents will expand when cooked and you don’t want your leaves to burst. Depending on the size of the leaf, place a pinch of the meat and rice mixture about 1 inch from the bottom of the leaf where the stem was.
Fold the bottom of the leaf up loosely and pinch the stuffing, tucking the part you flipped up underneath the mixture as you roll up. Caution: don’t pinch too tightly!
After you’ve rolled it up about one turn, fold the sides of the leaf in and continue to roll up.
Repeat a couple hundred times until the meat and rice mixture is gone or you’ve got enough rolled leaves to suit your needs. This is where having a helper makes it most fun!
When you complete the rolling, your leaves are ready to freeze or cook!
They will freeze great in Tupperware containers. You can place a sheet of Saran Wrap between layers to separate.
Depending on how many you are cooking at a time, select pot and layer the leaves around in a circular motion. Flavoring with pork or extra leaves, optional.
Fill with water almost covering the rolled leaves and add 5-6 squirts of lemon.
Heat to medium-high and almost bring to a boil.
Depending on the size of your pot, use a small bread plate or saucer and place directly on top of the leaves in the pot. This keeps them from bursting open.
Once the water comes almost to a boil, turn the heat back to medium-low for 25-30 minutes (quantity will determine how long). You want the leaves to be tender but you don’t want the rice to be mushy.
Turn the stove off, cover with a lid and let sit for 10-15 minutes and try to wait until they cool before taking a bite!
*Any leftover rice and meat makes a nice meal, too! Simply add water and lemon juice, almost covering the mixture, bring to an almost boil then turn back, just like cooking the grape leaves. Your rice will tell you when it’s done.
Easy, right? The presentation is so pretty that it looks like it must be really complicated. But if I can do it, so can you!