Grandma never measured anything out. Mom learned from Grandma.
The best family recipes aren’t documented. There’s no written recipe to reference when daring to recreate those most nostalgic childhood meals. A little bit of this, a little bit of that…and somehow it always turned out perfect. As is the case with my mom’s stuffed grape leaves…until now.
My mom knows the grape leaves are seasoned just right by giving the filling a little taste. Yep, she tastes the raw meat. She doesn’t actually swallow the meat. Like tasting a fine wine in Napa Valley, she puts the meat mixture on her tongue, tastes for seasoning, then adjusts. This isn’t something I would have a problem with (tasting the raw meat). I trust our butcher and always buy organic. But, unlike Mom, I do not possess a sommelier-esque palate so as to be able to just taste when the seasoning is perfect. More cinnamon? More allspice? More salt?!?! Ah!
So Mom and I devised a plan to finally figure out a written recipe.
At first glance, this recipe looks complicated. Don’t let that complicated appearance get you flustered. It really is simple once you get rolling. Invite friends and family to help with the process. It’s more fun to do this as a group, and it gets everyone more connected to the delicious meal they’re about to consume. Pour some wine and make a fun afternoon out of it.
This is one unwritten family legend that was begging to be uncovered. Thanks for letting the secret out, Mom!
- 3 lbs ground lamb
- 3 1/2 cups long grain white rice (I prefer Uncle Ben’s Original), uncooked
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper, finely ground
- 16-oz jar California grape leaves (I prefer Orlando), you will need approximately 60 for rolling and 20 for lining your double boiler
- 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
- Equipment: You will need a large stockpot with a pasta or steamer insert and lid. I use this one.
Remove grape leaves from their jar and drain in a colander. Rinse well with running water and drain again. With a paring knife, remove the stem from the base of 60 grape leaves. There is a small stem at the base (about 1/4 inch) that needs to be trimmed. Set aside the 60 trimmed and cleaned grape leaves while you prepare the filling.
Combine lamb, rice, cinnamon, allspice, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Mix until well combined. I find using my hands to mix the ingredients works best. Reserve filling.
Prepare your stockpot. Add 2 inches of water in your stockpot, place pasta insert or steamer insert into your pot. Make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the insert. If it does, reduce the amount of water. Line the insert (both bottom and sides) with grape leaves, ensuring all holes are covered. Note: Do not use the grape leaves you trimmed the stems from for this, use the additional grape leaves you have leftover. Use 10-15 grape leaves for the lining.
You are now ready to start filling and rolling the grape leaves. Working with one grape leaf at a time, place grape leaf on your work surface stem side up. Place 1-2 tbsp of meat mixture (1 tbsp for small grape leaves) near stem. Fold in the sides and roll grape leaf starting from the stem and moving away from you. Repeat with the additional grape leaves until all of the meat mixture is used. If you run out of the 60 cleaned and trimmed grape leaves, prepare more as needed.
Line rolled grape leaves in the prepared pasta insert or steamer insert. Alternate direction leaves are pointed with each layer until you’ve used all of your rolled grape leaves. Top your rolled grape leaves with crushed tomatoes, and add another layer of the leftover grape leaves on top (just as you did for lining the insert) to make a seal, you will use 6-8 leaves.
Put the lid on the stockpot, turn heat to high and bring water to a boil. Once water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and steam for 2-3 hours or until grape leaves are cooked through. (Note: I always check to see if they are cooked through at the 2 hour mark. The last thing you would want to do is overcook them.) The grape leaves will be done when the meat is cooked through and the rice is fully cooked.
Note: Throughout the cooking process, be sure to check the boiling water. You want to make sure the water is steadily boiling and that the water level is just right. It should not touch the bottom of the insert, or drop too low and boil away. If the water is touching the bottom of the insert, remove some water. If the water level drops too much, add more.
Serve with pita bread, and traditional Lebanese mezza dishes (hummus, olives, fattoush, tabbouleh) and plain yogurt.
Yields: Approximately 60 stuffed grape leaves. Recipe can easily be halved.