Stuffed Grape Leaves. In Arabic, محشي ورق عنب, or, spelled phonetically, mishi waraq ‘einab. It was another one of those dishes my sisters & I ate gleefully growing up. When Mom would make stuffed grape leaves, it was cause for great rejoicing. Especially for Dad.
Many know the Greek word, Dolmas. Dolma comes from the Turkish word “dolmak” meaning “to be stuffed”. In Arabic, “mishi” means “stuffed”. There are literally dozens of variations of stuffed grape leaves all over the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Central Europe, and Central Asia.
Probably the most common way to make the grape leaves is to cook them in an olive oil – lemon juice based-sauce. However, the way I was taught to make grape leaves was the way my grandmother made them; with a tomato-based sauce.
I was talking to my mom about this one day. She said the first time she ever ate grape leaves, the sauce was made from sour grapes. She said it was awful. The next time she had the dish, my dad had made it the way he preferred and the way his mother made them – with tomatoes.
I like to call it Palestinian-style.
If you would like to make this dish vegetarian/vegan, substitute an equal amount of roasted eggplant for the meat, vegetable broth for the beef broth, and add 1/4 cup tomato paste to the stuffing (this will help the filling bind together).
If you would like to use brown rice in place of the white rice, be sure to add 20 – 30 minutes to the cooking time.
1 jar grape leaves
1 lb. ground lamb or beef
2 c. long-grain white rice
2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1 tsp. ground black pepper, or to taste
2 tsp. allspice, or to taste
3/4 tsp. cinnamon, or to taste
Lamb shanks, lamb chops, or beef short ribs, optional
1 large can (22 oz.) whole tomatoes
2 c. beef broth
1. Take a large saucepan or stockpot and place a rack on the bottom. If you don’t have a rack, use a steamer that sits in the saucepan. (I like to use my pasta pot with the insert.) This is done not only to keep the grape leaves off the bottom to keep them from burning but to help steam the stuffed leaves as they’re cooking.
If you are using shanks, chops, or ribs, place them on the rack or steamer. Set aside.
2. Carefully take the grape leaves out of the jar (take care not to rip the leaves) and rinse thoroughly. You want to be sure that the brine is rinsed off. Usually, you will need to separate the leaves when rinsing. I’ll also fill a large bowl with water and let the leaves soak for a few minutes, then drain. You want the water to be as clear as possible.
3. Parboil the rice: In a large saucepan, place the rice and cover it with 1″ of water. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, stirring frequently to keep the rice from sticking.
Boil the rice until it is about halfway cooked (take some rice out of the water and test it; it should be slightly chewy with a very crunchy center). Drain the rice in a colander and set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
4. In a large bowl, mix together the meat and rice (it’s best to use your hands for this). Add the spices and mix thoroughly.
To taste for seasoning, take a small amount of the mixture and place in a hot skillet to cook (the flavor will be closer to what the finished dish will taste like). Adjust the spices to your taste.
5. Once you have finished mixing the filling, it’s time to stuff the leaves. Which I will explain in the following photos. (My husband took these photos across from me. I rotated them so you could see them from my perspective. So, admittedly, they may look a little skewed. Apologies.)
The most important thing to remember is to not wrap the leaves too tight. You want snug, but not tight. The rice will continue to expand when the stuffed leaves are cooked. If you wrap them too tight, they’ll burst. Conversely, if you wrap them too loosely, they’ll fall apart. A happy medium is preferred.
6. As you make each roll, place it in the pot. When you are about halfway through, crush a few of the tomatoes with your hands and lay them on the finished leaves. Pour on some of the tomato juice. Finish stuffing the remaining leaves. Crush the remaining tomatoes and place them on top. Pour over the rest of the tomato juice and the beef broth.
7. Cover the pot and bring the liquid to boil over high heat. Lower the heat to low, keep the pot covered, and cook until the rice and meat are cooked, about 30 – 45 minutes. You’ll need to take one out to test.
8. When the grape leaves are cooked, place a serving on a plate, carefully pull out one of the shanks or ribs, and spoon out some of the broth to pour over the leaves on the plate. You can also have some yogurt and pita bread on the side.
Admittedly, this is a dish that does take some time to put together. But, the results are well worth it.