The garden is planted – both flower gardens and vegetables – at Casa de Rathbun. I made a trip with a friend to Dutch’s Greenhouse on South Seneca this year to pick up some flowers. I love their variety and quality of plants. I even picked up an artichoke plant, some “Armenian” cucumbers – the Lebanese call them mytha – and a watermelon plant. We’ve grown the Lebanese cucumbers before but never tried to grow an artichoke or watermelon. I figured, why not give it a whirl? The sweet gentleman checking me out even asked, “Wait, are you the food writer for The Eagle?” Just when I thought I was writing to the wind.
A beautiful gift we received when we purchased this home we live in was a gorgeous grapevine out back for picking grape leaves. The previous owners are Lebanese, too, and I absolutely love having this vine to pick from. I have so many fond memories of rolling grape leaves with my grandma and my girl cousins. It was always so gratifying to gather around Grandma’s dining room table, chat and roll. Those are some of my best childhood memories. The hardest part was waiting for the grape leaves to be ready to eat.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a vine, or someone else’s vine to pick from, the leaves can be purchased in a jar from N&J’s Global Market or Asia Bazaar. Fresh is, of course, a bit fresher tasting, but the jarred option is great, too. Just be sure to rinse them well so they aren’t salty. Then trim off the small stem at the bottom of the leaf. I like to use scissors because it’s quicker than a knife. My friend Chris has mastered cutting a bunch at a time, but she’s the master of everything in the kitchen. In fact, this grape leaf recipe is hers, with a few of my tweaks.
Another fun thing about grape leaves is you can cook them with meat at the bottom of the pot, and the meat will flavor the grape leaves and the grape leaves will flavor the meat. One of my friends does beef short ribs, another does chicken thighs, and I usually do lamb chops. Simply layer them after you’ve put single grape leaves to cover the pot, then layer the rolled grape leaves on top. Lamb will never taste so good as with the lemony, salty, cinnamon flavors, and it will fall off those tiny bones. Some people use a combination of ground lamb and ground beef in their hushwa – the filling – but I prefer to keep things separate. Not everyone, including Randy, loves lamb.
I helped a few friends roll a batch last week, and we claimed we hadn’t had that much fun in a while. And this morning, I’m off to help another friend to roll grape leaves for her daughter’s upcoming wedding. As you can tell, rolling grape leaves is a social gathering. The work is always more fun when it’s shared with friends. Grab some friends, grape leaves and a few other ingredients, and get to rolling.
Grape Leaf Rolls
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 heaping teaspoons cinnamon
1.5 cups long grain rice
2 pounds ground chuck
½ cup clarified butter, melted, extra for brushing pot & for cooking
½ cup lemon juice, extra for cooking
½ cup water
1 jar grape leaves (or 50-60 fresh, rinsed, trimmed and wilted)
To make the filling, mix dry ingredients first, and then add ground chuck and butter. Once it’s mixed well, slowly add the lemon juice and then add water.
Remove grape leaves from the jar and rinse them under water and put in a colander. Trim the stem off of each grape leaf, leaving them in a stack.
Brush your stock pot or Dutch oven (that’s large enough to have plenty of room) with clarified butter. Layer a single layer of grape leaves (not stuffed) into the pot to cover the bottom and sides of the pot.
To roll, face the leaf vein side up with the stem facing you. Put 1 tablespoon filling into a finger shape and lay it at the bottom of the leaf. Slightly tuck the bottom of the leaf up and then tuck the edges in and continue to roll until the meat is completely covered by the leaf and cannot get out. If you have filling coming out, you’ve put too much filling in. A good rule is that grape leaves should be about the length of your finger and not overly thick.
Once rolling is complete, layer the grape leaves in one direction for one layer, then the other direction for the next layer. When complete, add another layer or just grape leaves (not stuffed). Add butter, lemon juice and water to just barely cover the grape leaves. Bring the pot to boil over medium high heat, and then reduce the heat to medium low, for 2 – 2 ½ hours, or until all water is absorbed, leaves are tender and rice is cooked through. Serve with yogurt or plain.