Stuffed Grape Leaves are one of those things that people either beg for or are horrified at the mere thought of. In my family, you can’t have a holiday table without them. Many cultures include meat in their filling, but the ones I grew up on don’t. I’ve never done it myself, but my grandmother used to have a grape arbor in her backyard, and an old neighbor of ours had grape vines at his office, so she and my Mom would pick the leaves when they were tender – usually at the beginning of June – and blanch and freeze them for later use. I don’t happen to have any grape vines handy, so I’ll stick with the grocery store for those. 🙂
3/4 c Mazzola oil
3 1/2 c onion – chopped fine
1/2 c pine nuts
1/4 c parsley, chopped
1 c rice (Preferably Uncle Ben’s)
1/2 c currants
2 T dill (or more to taste)
salt and pepper
1/4 t sugar
2 jars grape leaves
Once you have chopped your onions and parsley, you’re good to go. Saute the onions, parsley, and pine nuts over med-high heat in the oil, until the onions are translucent and the pine nuts begin to brown. You want to make sure you don’t burn the pine nuts. Do you HAVE TO use Mazzola? I suppose not, but I’m getting old, so back in the day, that was one of the few options. I do strongly recommend using Uncle Ben’s for the rice though – I find a lot of other rice get mushy. At this point, stir in the juice from half of a lemon, but don’t discard the lemon – you can use it again later. Add the rice and a cup of water, then lower the heat and continue cooking for another 10″ or so, stirring often to prevent scorching or sticking to your pan.
Add the currants, dill, salt, pepper to taste, and sugar, turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking until the rice is almost cooked through. If you need to, go ahead and add a little more water as it cooks down…and by all means, add more dill – I LOVE DILL!! Remove from heat and allow to cool enough for you to be able to handle it. The filling should look something like this…
Now you’re ready for the fun part…rolling them (insert your own “rolling” comment here). Pop open a jar of leaves and drain the liquid. Don’t panic if you can’t get them out of the jar. If they give you a problem, pull them out as far as you can, squeeze and twist – repeat until they pop out. Give the leaves a little rinse to get off some of the brine. Don’t completely soak them though. You want to retain some of that salty goodness.
Pull out any huge, tough, or extremely veiny leaves. You can use those to line the pot you’ll be cooking them in. Lining the pot prevents the rolled ones from scorching on the bottom if you run out of water along the way. I recently decided to try making them in a steamer basket, and that worked out great, but you certainly don’t have to. To line the pot, lay a few leaves on the bottom with the veins facing up, then work your way up the sides, leaving some overhang so you can fold them over the top when you’re done.
OK, so place a leaf on your work surface, vein side up, with the tip facing away from you, and snip off the stem – I use a small paring knife. Then put about a tablespoon of filling at the bottom like so…
Fold the bottom up over the filling, then fold in the sides and roll up to the point. Most people don’t cook the rice all the way in the beginning, so they roll them loosely so the rice doesn’t expand and burst them, but I like to cook the rice more on the front end.
Layer the rolled leaves in your pot, with the seam-sides down. It doesn’t need to be a huge pot, but you don’t want to have to layer them more than two or three rows high. When you’re finished, fold the leaves you had lined the pot with over the top, then layer with lemon slices (this is where you can use the one you squeezed earlier if you want). Pour over about 2 cups of water – I tend to use more because from my perspective, it’s easier to drain off any excess water later than to deal with a burnt pot and ruined grape leaves!
Top it all off with any extra leaves you have left and a plate or something to weigh them down. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil, then turn to low and cook for about an hour and a half. Although the filling is already cooked most of the way, you want to cook the leaves so they are tender and the veins aren’t stringy. This is where I usually start getting funny looks from my nephews…I’ll shush everyone, and when they’re quiet, I’ll lean down and listen to the pot to hear how hard it’s bubbling. This sometimes meets with an “…um, Aunty…are you OK?” It’s easier if you have a gas stove to know how low the heat is. That’s why I’m glad I started using the steamer basket. Even if I use too much water, by the time they’re done, it’s below the basket anyhow, but not so much is gone that they burned.
I have never tested the theory, but I have always been told that when you remove them from the heat, you should just put the pot someplace cool overnight but DO NOT OPEN – it supposedly makes dark spots on the leaves or something. When you unearth them in the morning, toss all the loose leaves, layer the rolled ones on a platter, and garnish with lemon slices or curlicues of lemon zest.
It may seem like a lot of work, but if you have ever had stuffed grape leaves at a restaurant or from your grocery store’s salad bar, you’ll see that they’re definitely worth the effort! I’ve only ever had them “out” once that came anywhere close to homemade. Enjoy!