I usually make these with meat, but I tried two veggie recipes this week that really worked. One is savory-sweet, while the other is just plain savory. *Both* times I meant to take a picture of the finished product with the dipping sauce, these delicious little rice envelopes disappeared too fast for me to remember! Stuffed grape leaves, popular in Greek, Turkish, and eastern European cuisine, are a perfect finger food for parties. Or you could just, you know, eat them all yourself.
The basics for either variety:
- a 1-lb jar of grape leaves (with brine, which translates to about 1/2 lb of dry leaves, if you’re lucky enough to get them fresh!)
- 1 lb arborio rice (risotto), or another short-grain rice
- 1/2 yellow onion
- 3-4 tbsp butter, margarine, or olive oil
- 2 cups vegetable stock (I used low-sodium stock)
- 2 cups hot water
Additional ingredients for savory-sweet grape leaves:
- 3 tbsp currants
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp allspice
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 2-3 tbsp tomato paste
Additional ingredients for straight savory grape leaves:
- a handful of fresh mint
- a handful of fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tsp allspice
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 2-3 tbsp tomato paste
What you’ll pour over the top once they’re rolled:
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
And these are for an excellent yogurt dipping sauce:
- 2 cups Greek yogurt (full-fat or “cream top”–you’ll want the fat for this!)
- 1 tbsp dill (fresh or dried)
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- a handful of chopped mint
- 1 tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
OK, let’s get started! Both of these varieties are cooked the same way, so you can pick one and follow the same set of directions, or split the recipe in half to make two kinds. Or better yet, you can double it and make a full batch of each! This recipe stuffs a whole jar of grape leaves (30-40 rolls), with some filling left over for a yummy lunch.
Your leaves will come in rolls in a jar, so the first thing to do is take them out of the jar and carefully unroll them. Try your best not to rip them. You don’t have to separate the leaves; for now leave them in the stacks they came in. Place the unrolled stacks in a colander, and rinse them with cold water until you’re satisfied that you’ve washed the brine off. Set these aside (you don’t need to dry them–they’ll get wet again before they go in the oven).
You’ll cook the filling just like you would risotto. First, chop your onion into small pieces and place it in a large pot with the butter and the additional ingredients for the flavor you’re making. Cook this mixture on medium heat until the onion begins to turn translucent. Next, add the rice. Cook this dry for another 2-3 minutes, making sure to thoroughly mix the ingredients.
Add the stock and hot water, stir, and bring the whole thing to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn the heat to low and cover the pot. Check on it and give it a stir every few minutes, just to make sure the rice on the bottom doesn’t burn. When all of the liquid is absorbed, turn the heat off. It doesn’t matter if the rice is undercooked, because it will cook some more in the oven. Let the mixture cool. Give it a taste and add any extra spices you think it needs–it’s fine to over spice this, because we’ll add more liquid before it goes in the oven.
Now you’re ready to stuff and roll your leaves! I wear gloves when I do this, and I also cover my counter top with plastic wrap (taped down). I find that this is neater, but it’s also much easier to slide finished rolls off to the side when you have slippery hands and a slippery surface. Take a look at the pictures if you’re rolling grape leaves for the first time! First, carefully separate each leaf from the pile (cutting off any stems), and arrange them vein-side up. Next, spoon about a tablespoon of the filling just above the bottom of each leaf, at the center. Fold the bottom up, and fold the sides in–tightly. Then grab the whole closed portion and roll it towards the end of the leaf (again, tightly).
If some of your leaves have holes, or are ripped in too many places to roll, you have two choices: you can either use them to line the bottom of your dish (and eat them later), or use bits of them to patch up leaves with smaller holes. Do this by laying the “patches” directly over the holes of the leaf before you put the filling on and roll it up. The traditional way to cook stuffed grape leaves is to use an oven-safe metal pot, boiling the contents on the stove top first, and then putting it in the oven. If you want to do this instead of using a glass dish, you will need to line the bottom of the pot with the damaged leaves, in order to stop the stuffed ones from burning (don’t eat the lining-leaves if you use a metal pot).
Place your stuffed leaves in the glass dish, seam-side down. They should be touching, but not squished together. You can also arrange them in layers if they won’t all fit on the bottom of the dish (no more than 3 layers, lest they cook unevenly). Combine the lemon juice, olive oil, and boiling water and pour the mixture evenly over the rolls. Lay a plate or another heavy, oven-safe item on top of the rolls, to keep them from unrolling and to seal in the steam (don’t worry if the top isn’t completely covered). Bake the dish at 400°F for an hour or slightly more. This should be enough time for most of the liquid to boil off; if it doesn’t, drain the excess off when the leaves are done. When the dish comes out of the oven, the leaves should be a very dark green, bordering on black. Serve hot or at room temperature, with or without the dipping sauce (just mix the sauce ingredients together, and you’re done).