The Soup Lady has something you don't have: stuffed grapeleaves on demand. Yes, our mister was born in Egypt and when he came to the U.S., he brought along the recipes and kitchen techniques of his mother. His standards are exacting - every dish must live up to his memory of childhood perfection. I doubt very much if every dish was as picture-perfect as he remembers but picture-perfect is what he wants.
This greatly works to my advantage because whenever the menu calls for one of those classic dishes, such as babaganoush or tabouleh, he trusts no one. I don't mind in the least giving up kitchen control especially when the end result of a labor-intensive dish as this is so delicious.
These are the grapeleaves he's been making for all the years of our married life. Our children have been helping since they were very small and under his tutelage, have become proficient and are able to produce according to his standard. What that means for me is that anytime I want them, all I have to do is threaten to make them by my Lithuaniain self and someone with Egyptian blood coursing through their veins will intervene. Sweet!
Like all authentic ethnic recipes that have made their way to America, this one has no exact measurements. For your sake, I tried to estimate amounts but really you should follow your instincts. There are only a few things you need to know:
- There should never be more rice than meat.
- Never use the leanest blend of chopped meat. 88% lean is ideal, in my opinion. 93% leanis good for nothing. You need a little fat to get the right flavor for the juice.
- The rolls must be thin and tight.
- Never skimp on the garlic.
- No matter how many times you tell someone that "allspice" is not "all spices in one bottle", they won't believe you.
- The smallest, thinnest finished rolls are the most prized.
STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES
2 pounds of chopped meat
1 1/4 cup of long-grain rice, uncooked
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
one large jar of grape leaves
5 fresh limes
two heads of garlic
dried mint leaves
(all images are thumbnails. click to enlarge)
Mix the meat, the rice, the allspice and the cinnamon together in a bowl. No salt is necessary because the grape vine leaves are packed in brine and that will add to the final flavor. The measurements are inexact, but the proper ratio of meat-to-rice should look like this.
The best grape leaves to use are also the easiest to find- Orlando Grape Leaves from California. It's not unheard of to use the leaves of those pesky wild grape vines that plague your landscaping but you have to boil them first and they really are not as tender, flavorfull or as easy to work with as the bottled variety. Take the leaves out of the bottle, unroll and drain but do not rinse. Select a single leaf and start by cutting off the stem. Place the leaf onto a plate with the smooth, shiny side down.
To make the stuffed grapeleaf, start by folding the lower flaps up towards the point of the leaf, covering the meat. Using your fingertips, roll the thing away from you a half-turn.
Bring the roll close to you and use the palm of your hand to apply gentle pressure while rolling the thing away from you again. You can, if necessary, then use a back-and -forth rolling motion to even out the filling inside the rolled leaf. This is the step that insures that the rolls are uniform and tight and will prevent unrolling in the pot and messy falling apart when you lift it up to eat it.
The acceptable limits, according to that high personal standard mentioned before, is that no finished roll may be bigger than your index finger. The preferred size is no bigger than your pinky finger. Place the rolls into a large stock pot, placed tightly next to one another. Fill the bottom of the pot entirely before you move on to the next layer.
Place an inverted plate big enough to cover most of the surface of the rolls inside the pot. (Ours is weighted with pieces of marble. I don't recommend that, but he insists.) Add enough water to reach the top of the rolls. Pout it gently down the side of the pot so as not to disturb the arrangement of the rolls, mint and garlic. Sometimes he adds more lime juice at this point.
Set the pot on the burner and bring to just boiling. You don't want to wildly boil and risk unrolling in the pot. Reduce the heat to get a slow rolling boil for 30 minutes, just enough to cook the meat and rice. Turn off heat and remove the plates. Remove the grape leaf rolls one by one with tongs.
How to eat: Consume everything. Choose the smallest ones for yourself put them on your plate with some of the pot liquor. Pick up the stuffed grapeleaf rolls with your fingers. Eat the garlic cloves, eat the mint, consume the pot liquor. Serve with warm pita bread, hummus and/or plain yogurt. Use the bread as a vehicle for the hummus, the yogurt and the pot liquor. Pot liquor. Pot liquor. I like to say that. Refrigerate leftovers in a spot where it is hard for others to get to, assuring that you will benefit the most from others labor.
Yield: a great big potfull. These reheat in a microwave without problem. Be sure to add some pot liqour when you reheat them. Pot liquor.