Talk about a fun girls night! My girlfriends and I just learned hands-on how to make entree-style Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves from our friend, Rafah. Rafah did all the research, contacting her aunt in Lebanon to find out how to make the stuffed grape leaves start to finish. Then Rafah guided us through the process of prepping the ground beef and basmati rice filling, rinsing the grape leaves, stuffing and filling the leaves, placing the stuffed leaves in the stockpot, and simmering the dish in a mixture of tomato paste and water for an hour.
When I tasted the first stuffed grape leaf, I was amazed at the flavor and texture! Who knew such simple ingredients could create such a delicious and intriguing main course! The grape leaves added a tangy yet complex flavor almost reminding me of coffee. We dipped the stuffed leaves into Greek yogurt and enjoyed.
I loved making and eating the stuffed leaves so much that I wanted to make them again while the memory of the process was fresh in my mind. I served them at a recent dinner with a different group of friends. I made a few changes while prepping though I kept the basic process Rafah had taught us. I learned that I far prefer the flavor and texture of 90% lean ground beef that we originally used to the 96% lean that I tried. I’m considering trying 94% lean next time to try to balance out the saturated fat intake with the flavor considerations.
Both times we chose basmati rice for its low glycemic index relative to other rices. For spices, Rafah added allspice, salt, and pepper. I added these and also tried a little cinnamon and nutmeg. If I had had my Lebanese mixed spice with me, I would have tried adding it plus the salt and pepper. When we were eating the leaves, Rafah mentioned that they should be more lemony. To try to compensate, I added about 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice to the meat and rice filling. I’m not convinced that this helped. Next time, I think a splash of lemon juice on the cooked packets would offer a sharper flavor contrast. Serving lemon wedges or slices at the table would be a nice touch.
I also tried a different technique for placing the stuffed leaved in the pot. Rafah’s technique had us make small pyramids out of the leaf packets and tie them with thread. Then these packets were placed in the stockpot lined with grape leaves. For my version, I kept the grape leaf lining to prevent the packets from burning. Then I packed the leaf cylinders tightly in layers in the pan. The cookbook I referenced said to put a plate upside down over the grape leaves, presumably to keep them pressed down during the simmering process without tying them in pyramids. I didn’t want to risk one of my white plates to an hour of simmering in a red sauce so I used a slightly smaller pot lid to press down on the packet layers.
Lastly, I paired the Stuffed Grape Leaves with a Pennsylvania Cabernet Franc, 2008, from Pinnacle Ridge on the Lehigh Valley Trail. Excellent match! I’ve generally found that VA and PA Cabernet Francs have the perfect body and vegetal flavor profile to pair beautifully with vegetable dishes.
Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves
Special equipment: Large bowl, colander or strainer, stockpot with lid, thread (optional) or plate/pot lid that fits inside of the stock pot
1.25 lb. 90% lean ground beef, raw
1.25 cups basmati rice, uncooked
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. allspice
Dash of Vietnamese cinnamon (optional)
Dash of nutmeg (optional)
1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 16 oz. (drained) jar grape leaves
1 16 oz. can of tomato paste
1 lemon, sliced into wedges
1. Soak the basmati rice in water for 10-20 minutes after rinsing. Meanwhile, rinse each grape leaf and allow to drain in a colander or strainer.
2. Mix equal portions of the beef and rice together with your hands until well-incorporated. You may have leftover of one of these two ingredients. Add the olive oil, spices, salt, and pepper and mix in with your hands.
3. Set up a prep station for folding the grape leaves (in front of the TV or with friends makes this part much more fun!). My station includes the stockpot, the colander full of grape leaves, the bowl of meat and rice stuffing, and wax paper for a work surface and for placing folded packets.
4. To make a packet, take a grape leaf, cut or tear off the stem, and place vein side up (shiny side down). Take 1-2 tsp. of the meat and rice stuffing and place it in the center of the leaf, in line with the vein extending from the stem. Shape the rice into a log with a pointy top. Do not overfill the leaf; there should be ample leaf left along the center vein to almost completely cover the meat when folded. Fold the pointy tip of the leaf over the meat and fold the bottom of the leaf (the side with the stem) over the meat. Holding down these sections, take the side of the leaf and wrap it over the meat mixture, pressing it down on the other side. Roll the mostly-wrapped meat section toward the other side of the leaf until meat mixture is completely wrapped. Set packet aside on the wax paper, seam side down and repeat until all the meat mixture is gone.
5. While stuffing the grape leaves, take note of grape leaves that appear less attractive or more delicate than others. Use these to line the bottom of the stockpot to prevent the packets from burning.
6. Carefully arrange the packets on the grape-leaf lined stockpot, packing them tightly. For the next layer, alternate the direction of the packets. Continue to layer until the packets are gone.
7. Mix tomato paste with water until you have enough liquid to completely cover the grape leaves and the tomato paste is completely dissolved.
8. Place the smaller pot lid or plate on top of the packets to keep them in place during simmering.
9. Pour the tomato paste mixture over the packets, ensuring they are all covered and adding 1-2 inches extra liquid to allow for some evaporation.
10. Bring to a boil on the stove top and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 hour, checking after 45 minutes for doneness and to see if more liquid is needed. Packets are done when the rice is cooked (soft) and meat is brown.
11. When done, remove pot from heat and serve the stuffed grape leaves warm with the cooked-down tomato paste mixture on top. Serve with lemon wedges and Greek yogurt.