During the month of Ramadan (August 11 – September 10), I am going to be posting daily reviews of books that deal with Islam, as well as other discussion posts related to the topics that come out of these books. I will be writing about both fiction and non-fiction books, and from a variety of sources and perspectives.
As we near the end of the first week of Ramadan, I’ve decided to share with you one of my kitchen adventures from this week. I’ve decided that I’m going to be making some Middle Eastern food this Ramadan, and my first foray into this was a dish called warak enab bi zeit (stuffed grape leaves). This is a dish that is made throughout the Eastern Mediterranean – including the Arab world but also such places as Greece – and can be found in many restaurants and home kitchens here in North America and throughout the rest of the world as well.
For more posts in the Ramadan Reading series here at Reading Through Life, you can click on the image above, or take a look at the schedule of posts.
The recipe that I used comes from The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions by May S. Bsisu (page 68). I altered the recipe a tiny bit, by adding some ground lamb into the stuffing, but otherwise used the recipe exactly as it was written. (I also neeed another 1/2 jar of grape leaves, but I think that if I used more stuffing per leaf next time, I could make this recipe with just the one jar like it calls for.)
They turned out fantastic, which I wasn’t expecting for a first try! My partner Zaid – who is Palestinian by origin – tried them and absolutely loved them, saying that the only thing that they were missing was some olive oil and lemon juice as garnish, which is usually added when you’re getting ready to eat them.
As a side note, if you’re making these for the first time and/or are making them just for a couple people, I would recommend halving or even quartering the recipe if possible. I have grape leaves coming out the ying yang around here now, in containers in the freezer! If you have freezer space or are feeding a large group of people, though, it’s great to make them in a large batch like this, because the process is extremely time-consuming and it would be far easier to make them once and store them than to make them more times in smaller batches.
The recipe as it is originally written, plus the photographs that I took along the way, are behind the cut. Enjoy!
Warak Enab Bi Zeit (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
A specialty of the Eastern Mediterranean, grape leaves are perhaps the best known and most popular wrap for savory fillings in the Arab world.
When I first encountered stuffed grape leaves in the States – in big-city delis and at some Middle Eastern restaurants – I was shocked at how chubby they were. Authentic stuffed grape leaves are slender: about the width of a woman’s pinky finger and no more than 1-1/2 inches long. Though making them can be time-consuming, the yield is quite large, and they can be frozen.
Cook stuffed grape leaves the day before you plan to serve them, so the flavors can develop.
Makes 10 dozen stuffed grape leaves.
- One 16-ounce jar grape leaves (look for Orlando or Al-Afaia brand), drained and rinsed
- 1-1/2 cupes short-grain rice, rinsed, soaked, and drained
- 1 pound onions, finely chopped
- 1-1/2 pounds tomatoes, seeded, chopped, and drained
- 5 cups chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint, or 3 tablespoons dried
- 2 cups fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
- 1-1/2 tablespoons salt, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
To line the pan:
- 1 pound tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
- 1/2 pound onions, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
- 1/2 pound potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
- lemon wedges
Separate a few grape leaves, spread them out flat, and hang them over the edge of a colander to drain well. As you fill the leaves, arrange the remaining leaves around the rim of the colander.
Combine the rice with the onions, chopped tomatoes, parsley, mint, 1 cup of the lemon juice, the olive oil, jalapeno, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Mix the ingredients together and taste (avoiding biting into the uncooked rice); add more salt and lemon juice if necessary.
Working with 1 leaf at a time, snip the stem off with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Spread the leaf out on a plate or clean work surface, shiny side down and stem end facing you. If the leaf has deep indentations between the segments, close the gap by bringing the two segments together, overlapping them slightly, or by patching the gap with a torn piece of another leaf. If any of the leaves are more than 4 inches across, cut them in half. Reserve any torn of broken leaves for lining the cooking pot. Trim and stack all the whole leaves.
Prepare the cooking pot before you begin rolling the leaves, so you can place them directly into it as you make them: Scatter the reserved pieces of grape leaves over the bottom of a wide 4-quart pot or Dutch oven. Top with a layer of the sliced tomatoes, followed by the onions and ending with the potatoes. Place the pot nearby.
Now stuff the leaves: Place 1 heaping teaspoon of the rice mixture in the center of a leaf, close to where the stem begins. If the filling is wet, squeeze the excess liquid back into the bowl; you will use it as the cooking liquid. Bring the bottom of the leaf up over the filling, then fold the sides of the leaf onto the filling (in the same way a butcher wraps meat). Roll the leaf away from you, wrapping it tightly around the filling as you go. Repeat with the remaining leaves and rice mixture. As you fill them, place the stuffed grape leaves, seam side down, in the cooking pot, arranging them in concentric rings, beginning with the outside ring and working your way to the middle. The rolls should fit snugly side by side. When the bottom of the pot is covered, layer the remaining rolls on top until they are all in place.
Pour just enough of the liquid from the rice mixture into the pot to reach the bottom of the top layer of rolls. If there if not enough liquid, add salted water – 1/2 teaspoon salt per 1 cup water – to reach that level.
Invert a heatproof plate over the rolls; the plate should be large enough to reach within 1/4 inch of the edge of the pot. Place a weight, such as a large can of tomatoes or foil-wrapped brick, on top of the plate. Cover the pot. (If you use a can that sits higher than the rim of the pot, use foil to cover the pot.) Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, and cook for 30 minutes. Then reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 cup lemon juice. Cover the pot and cook for 1-1/2 hours more. After the rolls have been cooking for 1-1/2 hours, taste, and add salt and lemon juice if needed.
Reduce the heat to low, remove the weight from the plate, and recover the pot. Place a heat diffuser under the pot. Cook until the grape leaves and the filling are tender, about 1 hour.
The liquid should be reduced to a glaze consistency. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate the stuffed grape leaves, still in the cooking pot, for at least 4 hours or, preferably, overnight. (The rolls will hold together better if refrigerated overnight.)
While holding the rolls in place with the plate, tilt the pot to pour the cooking liquid into a bowl. Remove the plate, and invert a tray or platter over the pot. Flip the pot and tray together but do not remove the pot. Leave it there for at least 15 minutes or up to 1 hour. This gives the rolls time to settle into a cake shape.
Gently lift off the cooking pot. Remove the layers of torn leaves, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. Return any stray rolls to their places. Use a paper towel to soak up any excess liquid around the platter. Garnish with lemon wedges, and serve.
Variation: Add 2 tablespoons pomegranate syrup to the cooking liquid, the way the Syrians do.