One hot, sunny day in late June I found myself in a tiny Arab market in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, sifting through a box of cucumbers. I was with Deanna and Danya, the lovely ladies behind the popular Israeli food blog Matkonation, and we were ingredient shopping for an afternoon cooking expedition. On the menu: stuffed grape (or vine) leaves made with spiced lamb, fresh mint, dried currants, and a cooling cucumber-yogurt sauce. May through early July is the best time to harvest grape leaves, which explained why we were able to grab bunches out of an overflowing cardboard box. The season was ripe for the recipe.
While in Israel and in the company of Matkonation, I initially requested we make an "authentic" Israeli dish, but I was told that doesn't really exist! New Israeli food, similar to American food, stems from a cultural melting pot, with influences ranging from the rest of the Middle East to the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, and Russia.
Stuffed grape leaves, also known as dolmas, are a popular cuisine in Israel and have certain characteristics we associate with that part of the world (lamb spiced with baharat, for example), but they actually have a long culinary history across the Middle East, as well as in Greece and Turkey. Fillings and spices vary by culture, but the gist is the same: grape or vine leaves are wrapped around a rice-based filling which includes some combination of meat (often lamb), fresh herbs like mint or parsley, onions, spices, and sometimes nuts or dried fruits.
I was shocked at how simple these were. For some reason, they've always seemed more complicated in my head. However, simple does not equal quick. It is rather time consuming to hand-roll 60-70 grape leaves, but truth be told, it's also a little meditative. Is this a meal to throw together in 30 minutes? Probably not. But a few hours some Sunday, a little background music, and you'll soon be into the grape-leaf-rolling groove.
Plus, stuffed grape leaves freeze remarkably well, which makes all that hard work pay off. After cooking, allow them to cool fully, then drizzle with olive oil, place in a freezer bag, and freeze. They'll keep for up to six months. To reheat, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator and then steam on the stovetop or heat in the microwave.
Where To Find Grape Leaves: Because fresh grape leaves were readily available in Tel Aviv markets when I was in Israel, we used them in this version. But if you don't have access to fresh grape leaves, you can find jarred or canned grape leaves at Middle Eastern grocery stores, or online.
Stuffed Grape Leaves with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce
Recipe provided by Matkonation. Makes 60 to 70 stuffed grape leaves.
For the filling:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 pound ground lamb
1 1/2 cups uncooked short-grain rice
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried currants (you can use dried cranberries if you can't find currants)
1/2 teaspoon baharat (see recipe below for homemade version)
Salt to taste
For the marinating sauce:
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Salt and fresh ground pepper
1.Soak the Grape Leaves: Soak the grape leaves in a large pot filled with boiling water and one tablespoon salt for five minutes. Remove from water and strain. Set aside. Note: If you use canned grape leaves, rinse them with hot water twice and then twice again in cold water in order to get all the vinegar out.
2.Cook the Onions: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium heat for about 7 minutes, or until the onion is soft and translucent, but not browned.
3.Add Garlic and Pine Nuts: Add the garlic and pine nuts and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes.
4.Add the Lamb: Raise heat to high, add the ground lamb and cook just until meat is browned. Add uncooked rice, and stir 1-2 minutes to combine. (The rice will cook when the grape leaves are steamed.)
5.Remove from Heat and Season: Remove from heat, add mint leaves, currants, and baharat. Season with salt and adjust seasoning according to taste.
6.Roll the Grape Leaves: Place a leaf, shiny side down (veiny side up) on a clean working space. Place about one teaspoon of filling in the center of the leaf, fold in the sides of the leaf, and roll from the bottom to the top. Make sure to create a very tight roll.
7.Place Rolled Grape Leaves in Pot: Line a large pot with a layer of sliced tomatoes. Place the prepared leaves tightly on top of the tomatoes in concentric circles, leaving no gaps between them. Repeat with until you run out of grape leaves, or the pot is full. When you finish one layer, start a second layer. (There is no need to put another layer of tomatoes on.)
8.Add Garlic and Marinating Sauce: Evenly sprinkle the sliced garlic over the grape leaves. Mix together the marinating sauce ingredients and pour over the grape leaves.
8.Place a Plate Over the Leaves and Cook: Place a plate over the leaves, cover the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 1/2 hours. Serve warm or cold with cucumber yogurt (recipe below).
Makes two cups
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, preferably from goat's milk
2-3 small cucumbers cut into small cubes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon good quality olive oil
In a medium bowl, mix together the yogurt, cucumbers and garlic. Season with salt, top with olive oil and serve.