Grapeleaves: Two of a Kind

The Story:
When Laila sits down to roll grapeleaves with her father in The Night Counter, she is committing the only normal ritual of the day—rolling grapeleaves is a family bonding time passed through generations. We roll, we talk, we teach, and at the end enjoy our communal effort. While there many variations of grapeleaves, in the Levant it comes down to basic versions, one meatless and served at room temperature and one with meat, served hot. Have plenty of grapeleaves on hand, and if you end up with too many, just toss them over the top of the pan. If you end up with too much stuffing, finishing it off by stuffing a tomato, which you can put in with the grapeleaves.

Vegetarian Filling Ingredients:

Two medium tomatoes
Diced 1 medium onion
Diced 3/4 cup of medium grain rice
1 bunch of fresh parsley chopped
1⁄2 bunch chopped mint (optional)
Juice of one to two lemons
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice or to taste (or you may use Arabic 7-spice powder,                      available at Middle Eastern markets)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt or to taste 1/2 cup of olive oil (or a bit more)

Meat Filling:

11⁄2 cup uncooked medium grain rice
rinsed 2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 pounds lean ground lamb or beef
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
1 to 2 jars of grapeleaves or about 60 fresh grapeleaves
1 sliced tomato
1 sliced potato (vegetarian)
1 sliced lemon Juice of one lemon

Take few grapeleaves and line them up in the bottom of the pan, top with a layer of sliced tomato–and a layer of potato for the vegetarian version. If you are using fresh grape leaves, soak them in hot water and some salt for half an hour, or until completely soft. If you are using the ones that you buy in the jar, soak them in warm water for few minutes then let them drain. Cut off the stems completely. Mix all the ingredients for the stuffing together—you will need to use your hands! Lay a leaf plate on a dinner plate, vein side up. Add the filling in thin line in the middle of the leaf, then fold the sides and roll while pressing a bit to let the juice out and also to make it a bit tight so it doesn’t fall apart. Tuck the ends in as you roll, like a burrito. Keep in mind that rice expands, so you don’t want to overstuff the grapeleaves. Place each leaf over the potatoes or tomatoes and then over each other as the bottom layer fills up. Top with the sliced lemon. Get a dinner or desert plate that can fit inside the pan, flip it upside down and place it on top of the grape leaves to press them so when they start cooking they don’t fall apart. Add enough hot water just to cover them, fit lid on tightly and bring to boil. For the vegetarian version, let them cook on medium low heat for about 20 minutes—more if the grapeleaves are tough—until the rice is tender. For the meat version cook on very low heat for about an hour after the water comes to a boil. When finished cooking (you may have to drain out excess water or add water during cooking), squeeze the juice of one lemon over the grapeleaves. To serve, flip the pan over onto a serving platter. Tap the bottom of the pan, so that everything comes out like a pilaf—this is traditional but takes a little practice and isn’t necessary, aside from the nice presentation it gives.

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