Lamb Stuffed Fresh Grape Leaves

Ground lamb is seasoned with warm spices and tomato then wrapped in blanched fresh grape leaves for a surprisingly delicate appetizer or main course.


It was a Wednesday in mid-May around lunch time when I received a text from my Dad. It went like this: 

“Hi Sweetheart. I was out in the garden and saw some large grape leaves and I thought of you. Anyway, I cut some, washed them and cleaned them. So if you would like them, let me know. Love you and thinking of you.”




The text was a welcomed bit of love and light in the middle of my work from home day. I replied with a very enthusiastic yes and a few days later, swung by my folk's house and picked up a bag filled with fresh grape leaves from their porch. That weekend, I got busy in my kitchen making stuffed grape leaves. 

I’ve written about the connection between food and memories many times before. The connection is so strong that I admit, thinking about stuffed grape leaves takes me back to my college years. 

When I got accepted to art school in Oakland, more than 500 miles away from home, my folk's minds were eased ever so slightly at the prospect of my living so far away by the fact that the eldest sister of my oldest childhood friend lived and worked in San Francisco and had promised my family that she’d look out for me. 

Melba, and her then boyfriend, now husband, Charlie, took me under their wing and set about broadening my worldview. These two incredibly intelligent and compassionate human beings are completely interwoven throughout my college memories, taking me to explore different areas of their city, to watch arthouse films for the first time and often having me over for rooftop barbecues and indie video rentals. I would drive into the city on the weekends and Melba and I would walk miles upon miles up and down those crazy hilly San Francisco streets trying bakeries and eateries and exploring all the art and culture that the city had to offer. 

Sometimes she and Charlie would come into Oakland and take me to their favorite restaurants in Berkeley. We went to Indian restaurants where I tried curries for the first time. They took me to Persian restaurants for kebob and biryani. I experienced my first taste of Lebanese tabbouleh, shawarma and falafel. And it was during these weekend excursions that I attended my first Greek festival where I ate gyros, spanakopita and  dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) for the first time. 


This time was so crucial in the development of who I became as a young adult and certainly has had an impact on the kinds of foods I seek out to eat and cook beyond the Mexican, Italian and classic American food I grew up on. Thanks to my parents and aunties, I already had a good sense of who I was but this exposure threw the doors wide open, showing me a world bigger than the one that I had grown up in. 

When I settled back in at home, I would pay forward the invaluable lessons that Melba taught me by taking my sisters to try different cuisines. I tried to expose them to arthouse films and museums and explore parks and local tourist attractions, wanting desperately to make the world bigger for them, too.

My second to youngest sister, Deb, who lives with my parent’s told me the other day that recently, while cooking a Mediterranean dinner for herself, my dad, ever the critical eye in the kitchen, asked where in the heck she had learned to eat the way she did because it certainly wasn’t from him. She said, “Ani taught me.” That brought a smile to my face. With that simple statement, I knew that just as Melba and Charlie had had an impact on me, so to had I on her. 


When Dad initially texted about the grape leaves, I hadn’t had time to plan a grocery order so I used the ground beef I already had in the freezer. Grocery shopping isn’t as easy and frequent a task in our current pandemic-stay-home lives. I opted to make Greek dolmas, braising them in traditional lemon forward liquid. I’ve made them many times this way and as much as I love them, I have to admit that I especially love them with more Middle Eastern flavors. So a few weeks later, when Dad gave me a second bag of leaves, I had time to get a hold of some ground lamb. 


Variations of dolma are staples in many cuisines from the Balkans, South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Dolmas are believed to have originated in Turkey and spread out from there. Dolma is Turkish and translates into "filling" or "stuffing" depending on a whether it's used as a verb or noun. Turkish dolmas have a mixture of rice, spices and ground meat that is gently stuffed into hollowed out vegetables such as zucchini or bell peppers. They also stuff grape leaves with the same mixture, often cooking them in the same pot at the same time. Turkish dolma isn't just reserved for vegetables but also makes its way into fruits as well. Some variations in all the countries that make dolmas will sometimes use other leafy greens to stuff like cabbage, kale, collard greens and even fig leaves. 

Besides Greek, I’ve had Lebanese, Turkish, Persian, and Syrian style dolmas. The recipe I’m sharing today takes all the things I love about the different types of dolmas I’ve tried over the years and combines them into one tasty little package. 


The meat is seasoned with warm spices and tomato paste. The snugly wrapped packages are then braised in a combination of stock and V8 juice. I absolutely love them prepared this way. The use of fresh grape leaves makes these surprising delicate. If you don’t have or want to use V8 juice, add a can of diced tomatoes with their juices to the braising liquid instead.

Unlike their jarred counterparts, fresh leaves aren’t overpowered by the brine that they are packed in. Don’t get me wrong, if I want stuffed leaves in the middle of winter, of course I’ll pick up a jar and use them. For me, though, they need plenty of rinsing and I will often take it even further by giving them a good soak in boiling water as well to help leach out as much of the brine flavor as possible. 

Though I am choosing to use lamb, you can use any ground meat of your choice. Or forego the meat altogether and make these vegan by tossing in chopped tomatoes, pine nuts and chopped dried fruit like apricot or figs and using vegetable stock in place of chicken in the braising liquid.

How to stuff and roll grape leaves


Like the stuffing and rolling of tamales that I learned to do as a youth, grape leaf rolling takes practice but once you have the technique down, it moves along rather quickly, especially if you do it assembly line style by filling your work surface with as many leaves as you can, adding the meat to all of them and then rolling one at a time.

  • Hold a leaf by the little nubby stem and gather it at the base where the stem attaches to the leaf. Trim away the stem and a bit of the surrounding base with a sharp paring knife or kitchen shears. The stem and the base where it attaches to the leaf tend to be tough and hinder the rolling process. Discard the stems. Repeat with remaining leaves. 
  • The leaves have two sides, a smooth side and the side with raised veins. Place 4 to 6 leaves, vein-side up, onto your work surface with the big center tip of the leaves facing away from you. 
  • Place a tablespoon of the filling in the center just above the area where you cut the stem away. Shape the filling into a thin log about 2 inches in length. 
  • Pull the two bottom leaves up over the filling (A.)
  • With fingertips from both hands resting on the now covered filling, roll the filling back towards you, until you can tuck the leaf tips that are covering the filling just under the filling (B.).
  • Now, slowly roll away from you about halfway up the leaf and tuck each side in towards the center (C.).
  • Continue tucking in the sides and rolling, ending with the big tip on the bottom (D.). Repeat with the remaining leaves.

Lamb Stuffed Fresh Grape Leaves

Traditionally, a long grain rice like Basmati is used for stuffing. I prefer the taste and texture of a medium grain such as Calrose but use whatever white rice you have on hand. A pro tip for layering the grape leaves into the cooking pot: stack them in a circle, leaving the center empty. You’ll be adding a plate to weigh down the leaves as they cook. By layering the leaves in a circle you ensure that all of the rolled grape leaves will come into contact with the plate. Most plates aren’t perfectly flat so if you stack the leaves willy-nilly into the pot, the leaves in the center will not be weighted down with the upside down plate and as the rice expands, they will unfurl during the cooking process.

Serves 8 as an appetizer or 4-6 as a main course

Ingredients

TO PREP THE RICE:
1 cup medium grain rice, such as Calrose
Boiling hot water

TO PREP THE LEAVES:
40 fresh grape leaves, washed well
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
Boiling hot water

FOR THE FILLING:
1 pound ground lamb, preferably organic grass fed
1 ½ cups chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup chopped cilantro, leaves and stems
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
2 fat cloves garlic, minced
4 green onions chopped, white and green parts
2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1 rounded teaspoon allspice
1 rounded teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

TO BRAISE:
1 lemon, sliced
1 large roma tomato, sliced
1 can Original V8 juice 
1 quart chicken stock, plus 2-3 cups more if needed 
Water, optional, as needed

TO SERVE:
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
Pinch of kosher salt
Chopped parsley
lemon wedges

Directions

Add rice to a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 10 minutes. Drain, rinse and set aside.

Layer grape leaves in a 9-inch x 13-inch casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt and cover with boiling water. Set aside to soak while you prepare filling.

To a large mixing bowl, add all the ingredients for the filling. Add the drained rice. Mix well to incorporate. 

Cover the bottom of a stock pot with the lemon and tomato slices and place pot near your work surface.

Pull four grape leaves from the casserole dish. Hold leaf by stem and gather it around the base where it attaches to the leaf. Trim away the stem and the base where it was attached. Repeat with three more leaves. Place the four trimmed leaves vein-side up on a work surface with the top tips facing away from you. Add a tablespoon of filling in the center of each leaf just about the area you trimmed. Form the stuffing into a log. 

Starting with the leaf closest to you, pull the bottom two parts of the leaf up and over the stuffing. Place fingertips of both hands on the now covered stuffing and slowly roll back, tucking the tips of the leaves under the stuffing. Then roll up halfway. Tuck in the two sides of the leaves (as if you’re rolling a burrito) then continue rolling and tucking as you go until the tip of the top leaf is under the stuffing. Place the rolled grape leaf into the stock pot with one end of the rolled leaf touching pot wall. Repeat with the remaining leaves, adding them to the pot stacked upon each other in a circle formation always with one end touching the pot wall, leaving the center of the pot empty. 

Once all leaves have been rolled and layered into the pot, pour in the V8 juice. Place the pot on medium high heat. Put a plate upside into the pot to weigh the grape leaves down (a salad or dessert plate works best for me). Pour in the chicken stock until it covers the plate. If you need more liquid to cover plate, use water or more stock. To ensure the plate doesn’t flip or move out of place during cooking, add a small heat-proof bowl half-filled with water on top of the dish. Once the liquid comes to a bowl, immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1½ hours. 

Carefully remove the bowl and plate from the pot. Let the grape leaves rest for 10 minutes before serving. 

Just before serving, combine the yogurt with the olive oil and salt in a small bowl. Top with the chopped parsley.

Serve the grape leaves with some of the broth poured over top and with some Greek yogurt on the side for dipping. 



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