Why It Works
- Layering meat at the bottom of the pot creates a richly flavored broth in which the leaves cook.
- Tomato paste, while not visible in the end result, adds a welcome layer of savoriness and tartness to the dish.
- Acidity from the grape leaves tenderizes the meat very quickly so that even in a couple of hours, cuts like short ribs are falling apart.
Warak dawali (literally: grape leaves), as Palestinians call both forms of this dish, may be one of our most common meals, yet it is also one of our most festive. No celebratory table is complete without a pot of stuffed grape leaves, often lined at the bottom with lamb ribs, although the options are endless and people have been known to line it with everything from lamb tongues or stuffed intestines to beef steaks or even chicken. In addition to the leaves, sometimes we also stuff small white courgettes (koosa) and baby eggplants that we layer in between the stuffed grape leaves and cook in the same pot.
The history of stuffing foods goes back centuries, possibly even farther, to the start of civilization. One of the first written records we have of the practice, however, is in the oldest Roman recipe collection by Apicius in the 1st century AD, and after that, in Arabic cookbooks from the Middle Ages. In those texts, what was most often stuffed was not vegetables, but instead whole cuts of meat filled with a variety of things from nuts and grains to vegetables and other cuts of meat or offal. The only vegetables Arabs wrote about stuffing in medieval times were eggplants and gourds.
According to research by Charles Perry in Oxford Symposium's Wrapped and Stuffed Foods, it was during the Ottoman Empire about 500 years ago that stuffed vegetables began to proliferate into the common food category we now enjoy across Arab, Mediterranean, and Baltic cuisines. Today, there are countless varieties of vegetables, fruits, and leaves stuffed with just as many filling options. Grape leaves are one of the most common, found across a large swatch of cultures. Yet how they are stuffed and cooked varies considerably from one place to the next.
Across Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, differences in how stuffed vegetables are prepared are marginal, akin to how two neighbors might prepare the same dish in slightly different ways. The biggest difference is often one of nomenclature. Generally, there are two varieties of stuffed grape leaves: vegetarian and with meat. The vegetarian is usually stuffed with a rice or bulgur mixture flavored with herbs, tomatoes, onions, and lemon juice, while the meat one is almost always rice and ground lamb or beef with spices. The vegetarian version can be eaten warm, at room temperature, or even cold, and is often served as a side or appetizer. But, to my mind, the meaty version is the real star.
There are a few key elements to ensure the best outcome to this dish; as with many things, the process becomes easier with practice. The first thing to pay attention to is the actual rolling. Many a Palestinian woman will tell you that a rolled grape leaf should be no bigger than your pinkie; this is much more slender than the plump dolmas of Greece. Indeed, there is something delectable about these miniature bites. But if wrapping grape leaves wasn’t time consuming enough, then ensuring every single leaf was cut and rolled to that size is a whole day project. I myself have opted for larger leaves to make the process faster. As you roll the filling into the leaves, it's important to make sure it's not over-stuffed and taught, but still wrapped tightly enough that the stuffing doesn't escape during cooking. If you do over-stuff the rolls, they'll likely split during cooking as the raw rice swells as it cooks.
The second element is the leaves themselves: fresh grape leaves have a distinct, and in my opinion, superior flavor to the jarred variety. If you're lucky enough to have access to fresh ones, harvest them in the spring when tender, tightly pack in cling film or vacuum pack, and freeze for use throughout the year. For most people, however, it is much easier to find the jarred varieties. This is a perfectly fine substitute, just opt for brands found at Middle Eastern grocery stores, such as California, Alafia, Ziyad or Orlando, and look for harvest dates that are earlier in the spring because by the time you get to summer harvest dates in July and August, the leaves are bigger and less tender. In any case, always make sure you cut out the stem and remove any veins that appear too thick or hard. If a leaf is more than one and a half times the size of your palm, you might want to consider cutting it vertically in half as well, then rotate it 180 degrees to fill and roll it.
Another element to consider early on is the seasoning and spicing. The stuffing is contained inside the leaves, so it would be difficult to season properly after cooking. That is why it is important to ensure that both the stuffing and the cooking liquid are sufficiently seasoned and well spiced; if they're not, the finished dish will possibly taste bland and one-dimensional.
The final key detail is cooking. The stuffed grape leaves are all packed together and cooked in a pot, either with or without pieces of meat layered on the bottom for more flavor. Regardless, low and slow is the way to go. It is possible to cook this dish vigorously on high heat, but it always comes out better when it is given the time it needs for all the flavors to meld, the rice to cook properly to a very soft consistency, and the meat to become fall-apart tender.
I like to use a nonstick pot for this, which reduces the chances that anything will stick once it comes time to turn all the stuffed grape leaves out. You can also use a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel pot, or an enameled Dutch oven, though the former has some risk of the food sticking and the latter makes flipping the grape leaves out more difficult because of its weight.
Once you’ve flipped the pot over to serve, all you need is a bowl of yogurt on the side and you have a perfect and complete one-pot meal that’s as festive as it is delicious.
- For the Filling:
- 1 pound (450g) short or medium grain rice
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, melted butter, or ghee (or a combination)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon (5g) tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon (4g) ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 pound (450g) ground beef or a combination of ground lamb and beef
- For the Broth:
- 4 cups (940ml) water (substitute with chicken stock or low-sodium broth if you are not using lamb chops or beef short ribs below)
- 1 tablespoon (15g) tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- To Assemble and Cook the Grape Leaves:
- 1 pound (450g) fresh grape leaves or jarred grape leaves in brine (about 80 to 100 medium sized leaves; see note)
- 12 lamb cutlets or 6 bone-in beef short ribs (optional)
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 medium (6-ounce; 170g) plum or globe tomatoes, cored and sliced crosswise into roughly 1/2-inch-thick rounds
- 2 tablespoons (10ml) fresh lemon juice (only if using jarred grape leaves)
- Plain yogurt, to serve
For the Filling: In a large bowl, stir together the rice, olive oil (or butter/ghee), allspice, tomato paste, cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and salt until thoroughly combined. Add the ground meat and mix until evenly incorporated.
For the Broth: In a medium bowl, whisk together the water (or broth) with tomato paste, allspice, cinnamon, and black pepper until thoroughly combined; season with 1 tablespoon (9g) salt. Set aside.
To Assemble and Cook the Grape Leaves: If using jarred grape leaves, drain, then place in a heatproof bowl and gently pull apart leaves slightly. Pour boiling water over leaves until covered by at least 2 inches. Let stand 15 minutes, then drain and rinse thoroughly. For both fresh and jarred grape leaves, using a paring knife, cut out the tough central stem and any other thick and tough veins.
On a work surface, lay out as many grape leaves as you can fit, with the vein side up and stem end closest to you. Spoon about 2 teaspoons of the stuffing above the cut-out stem section of each leaf (you may need a little more or less depending on the size of the leaf). Using your fingers, form the stuffing into a thin log about 1/2 inch thick, leaving about 1 inch of uncovered leaf on either end.
Fold the sides of the grape leaves over the stuffing, then, working from the stem ends, roll the leaves up over the filling and away from you, making sure to roll them securely enough that they hold but not so tightly that there's no space for steam to penetrate or the rice to swell (if rolled too tightly, the rolls are likely to burst during cooking; this may happen to a few anyway, which shouldn't be considered a failure). Repeat with the remaining grape leaves and filling, reserving several large leaves to line and cover the pot.
If you are using lamb chops or beef short ribs, season all over with salt. Heat the olive oil in a 6- or 7-quart nonstick pot or heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the meat and sear on all sides until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, then pack the tomato slices between the pieces of meat to fully cover the bottom of the pot. Lay enough reserved grape leaves on top to create a flat surface. If you are not using the lamb chops or beef short ribs, drizzle the bottom of the pot with the olive oil, then line with sliced tomatoes and cover with a few unrolled grape leaves.
Arrange the stuffed grape leaves in the pot in either concentric circles or rows.
Cover the stuffed grape leaves with more reserved grape leaves, then top with an inverted plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the pot (this weighs down the stuffed grape leaves and prevents them from moving when the liquid comes to a boil).
Pour reserved broth over the grape leaves.
Set the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, then lower heat to maintain a simmer. Cover pot and cook at a gentle simmer until rice is meltingly tender, 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours; if using jarred grape leaves, add the lemon juice 5 minutes before removing from the heat. Remove from heat and tilt the pot to one side; if much more than a very thick trickle of liquid pools, then carefully pour or spoon off the excess liquid into a bowl and reserve (it can be used to reheat leftover stuffed grape leaves later).
Cover pot and let rest 20 to 30 minutes. When ready to serve, uncover and carefully remove the plate. Place an inverted serving platter over the pot, then quickly flip the pot over and carefully lift to reveal the stuffed grape leaves and meat (if using). If the pot you're using isn't nonstick, it's possible some tomato may not release right away; that's okay, simply scrape out anything that's stuck and add it to the platter. Shake the platter lightly back and forth to help the stuffed grape leaves come apart so you can serve individual pieces (tongs are the easiest way to transfer them to plates). Serve generously, at least 10 per person, and offer plain yogurt on the side.
6 - 7 quart nonstick pot, enameled Dutch oven, or heavy-bottomed stainless-steel pot
While the taste of fresh grape leaves is superior, in most cases it is much easier to find the jarred varieties. Quality varies from brand to brand, as does size and freshness, and in many cases it will take you a few tries to settle on a brand you like. I recommend using jars found in Middle Eastern grocery stores, including brands such as California, Alafia, or Orlando, but make sure you look at harvest date: The earlier in the spring it was harvested, the better, because by the time you get to summer harvest dates, the leaves are much bigger and less tender. In any case, always make sure you cut off the stem and remove any veins that appear too thick or hard.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stuffing can be prepared and the grape leaves rolled up to 1 day in advance.
Leftovers can be refrigerated up to 4 days. To reheat, place grape leaves in a pan, add some leftover cooking liquid or water, cover, and simmer until piping hot.