Greek, Lebanese, and Persian stuffed grape leaves all taste differently. Ask anyone who has a traditional favorite, and they will try to convince you that theirs is the best. They are all, at the same time, both wrong and right. Each variety brings a little bit of something different to the taste buds. American-style stuffed grape leaves, however, are the finest! Just as America is the world’s melting pot of different civilizations, so too has its food become a blend of all cultures, combining the best of the best.
If you don’t know what stuffed grape leaves are, but stayed to this point, you made the right choice. Stuffed grape leaves are unique as a party appetizer, but they are also substantial enough to be the main entrée at a family dinner. Always well worth the prep and cooking time, this middle eastern classic is quickly becoming an American dish. These instructions will guide you in creating the unsurpassed American combination of these three international variants.
Step 1: Buy the Ingredients
If you have a kitchen you probably have all of the materials needed to make grape leaves. The ingredients can be acquired at a regular grocery store.
· 1 jar of grape leaves (about 1 lb.)
· 2 large tomatoes
· 1/4 C vegetable oil
· 2 lbs. ground beef
· 2 C rice
· 1 tsp allspice
· 1 tsp cinnamon
· 1 tsp salt
· 1 tsp pepper
· 1/2 C lemon juice
· Clean cook space
· Large bowl
· Cutting board
· Deep pot
Step 2: Grape Leaf Preparation
This is America where backyard grapevines are few and far between, with only the top one-tenth of 1% of Americans cultivating grapes in their backyards. Add to that fact that only specific types of grape leaves taste good and are usable only if they are picked young and used immediately, and you will find that most Americans use canned grape leaves. Canned grape leaves come in a salty brine to keep them fresh. Unless you like eating saltwater, rinse your grape leaves with lots of fresh water to remove the brine. Depending on your brand, they may feel thick and be harder to roll. If this is the case, you can boil them for 2 minutes to soften them. The international section in most grocery stores sells multiple brands, and you can experiment to find the one that suites your tastes.
Step 3: Tomato Preparation
Wash, core, and cut the tomatoes into 1/8” circular slices. Cover the bottom of the cooking pot in a single tomato layer. This prevents your grape leaves from burning on the bottom and adds some fresh flavor. The remaining slices will be used to layer between the grape leaves.
Step 4: Create the Stuffing
In a large bowl add your ground beef, rice, oil, and spices. Some folks might try to use a potato masher or wooden spoon to combine the mixture, however, you must use your hands to thoroughly blend the ingredients. The result should be evenly blended and stick together like a pizza dough.
Step 5: Role the Grape Leaves
Grape leaf connoisseurs would have you believe that fully wrapped, pinky-sized stuffed grape leaves are proper. This is America; we start with thumb sized to create a hearty meal. Take a thumb sized piece of the meat mixture and roll it into a sausage shape.
Place a plain leaf, veins facing inward on your cutting surface. If you can’t tell which side the veins are on, they are small enough it doesn’t matter. Sometimes they are a bit thick in the center, and you can cut some of them out.
Place the meat sausage along the bottom of the leaf and roll up just enough to cover the meat.
Tuck in left and right sides of leaf.
Finish rolling the leaf from bottom to top.
Step 6: Layer the Pot for Cooking
A great thing about grape leaves is how many you can create in a single batch. Layer your rolled grape leaves in your pot. Alternate layers of grape leaves and tomatoes. If you have extra meat, tomato, or leaves add them directly to the pot on top of the last grape leaf layer.
Step 7: Cooking the Grape Leaves
Once all of the stuffed grape leaves and any extra ingredients are in the pot, cover the layers in water. Boil the grape leaves on stovetop until the water is gone. You should use a loose cover on your pot or a heat resistant plate while cooking. Check regularly to make sure you do not overcook your stuffed grape leaves. They are done when the majority of the water is gone. You may need to tilt the pot slightly to gauge the water level. If you are worried about burning you can turn down the heat as the water level lowers.
Step 8: Remove the Grape Leaves and Serve
You now have a batch of American-style stuffed grape leaves. You can serve the grape leaves hot or cold on a plate. In America, one of the most popular ways to eat grape leaves is to serve them with traditional foods, such as hummus, baba ganoush, Tabbouleh, or yogurt. If you want a Lebanese / Persian variant you can season your stuffed grape leaves with salt and lemon juice. For a Greek variant coat your stuffed grape leaves in olive oil and add a small amount of lemon juice. Having a small plate with dipping options is always polite.
Congratulations on creating your first batch of grape leaves!