Friday, 20 April 2012

STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES (with ground beef)

Ouch!  I hurt my back doing yard work.  That made it hard to get ready for Easter.  By the time our guests arrived on Easter Sunday, I was thoroughly exhausted.  I had been cooking since the previous two days, plus planting some flowers, plus setting tables, plus washing pots and pans, plus praying the Tylenol I was taking for my backache would work a little faster.  Even though I was tired, all the preparations were so worth it!  Once I saw the company arrive, I felt brand new.  Well, almost brand new.  My brother and his family came over, plus a family of close friends.  Our friends brought with them their adorable 2 year old daughter Gracie. She all ready has the vocabulary of a high school graduate. Actually, Gracie is something of a scholar, because, at the tender age of two, she attends pre-school.  She saw a band-aid I had on my finger and asked me if I had a boo-boo.  "Yes, I have a bad boo boo," I replied.  "Bad boo boo?" She kissed my band-aid.  How can one not fall in love with Gracie?  

Among the dishes we served were these grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice. Gracie of course wanted nothing to do with them. She stuck to lamb, potatoes and salad.  Everybody else enjoyed them.  Usually, but not always, grape leaves stuffed with meat have avgolemono sauce poured over them.  Avgolemono is a Greek egg and lemon sauce.  I chose not to make it, but instead to add extra lemon juice to the cooking liquid.  Why no avgolemono?  Dietary reasons.  We are keeping away from eggs because as you know, they are high in cholesterol. The stuffed grape leaves were very good, and without the sauce they were healthier.

1 jar (16 ounces)  grape vine leaves
about 8 tablespoons olive oil
 1 onion, chopped
 3 cloves garlic, chopped
 1 bunch scallions, chopped, use as much of the green part as you can
 3 tbsp fresh mint, chopped                                  
 4 tbsp fresh dill, chopped                                    
 2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
 2 lb. lean ground beef 
 1 leek, white part only, finely chopped
 3/4 cup raw long-grain rice
 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes                      
 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
 salt and pepper to taste
 3 or 4 cans (14 ounces each) chicken broth plus water as needed
 juice of two juicy lemons

  • Remove the grape leaves from the jar and discard the briny liquid they were packed in.  Soak them in hot water for one or two hours, changing the water a few times in order to remove the saltiness of the brine.  When you have desalinated the grape leaves, set them aside.  
  • Save all the stems and leaves from the herbs, scallions and leeks that you would ordinarily discard.  Make sure they are rinsed well.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet.  Saute the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent.  Turn off the heat, add the herbs and scallions and mix.  Set the mixture aside.
  • In the same skillet heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil, add the ground meat and leek and cook, stirring, until the meat is browned, about 10 minutes. 
  • Add the tomatoes and 3/4 cup chicken broth.  Season with salt and pepper,  bring to a boil and add the rice.  Lower the heat, cover, and cook until the rice is partially cooked and the liquid has been absorbed.  You don't want the rice to cook all the way, because it will finish cooking later. 
  • Now add the onion and herb mixture to the meat and stir well.  Season again with salt and pepper and set aside, covered, until it's cool enough to handle. Once the filling has cooled, stir in the Parmesan cheese.
ZAP!  I love adding the Parmesan Cheese!
  • Line the bottom of a medium size heavy Dutch oven with the stems and leaves that you have saved.
  • Cut off the stems of the grape leaves.  Now comes the time to start filling them.  Place the shiny side of the leaf down, and set the filling on the duller looking side, where the veins are thicker.  Fill each grape leaf with about 1 tablespoon of the mixture.  Roll up the grape leaf, folding in the sides, so that you have a neat bundle.  
  • I had lots of grape leaves to stuff, so I moved the show to our breakfast area, were we have a television set.  I spread a few kitchen towels on the breakfast table, I placed a bowl full of filling and a plate of grape leaves on top of the towels, then I sat at the table and turned on the TV.  I watched some TV, I stuffed some grape leaves, and that was the easy way to go about it, especially since my back was aching.  Below I have some pictures that show the basic steps of rolling grape leaves.  
    • Fit the stuffed grape leaves, seam side down, on top of the stems in the Dutch oven.  Pack them in tightly.  Place a second layer on top, keeping the same pattern of layering.  This is done so that the cooking liquid can penetrate all layers.
    I placed my trusty Dutch oven on the breakfast table.  I sat down, turned on the TV and started stuffing the grape leaves.  They went into the pot one by one.  My mother was sitting next to me and was helping.  She can be pretty bossy, so the TV was set to PBS, nothing wrong with that, except that Lawrence Welk, her favorite, was on.  Mr. Welk, the heartthrob of the octogenarian female!  Anyway, on with the cooking....  
    • Sprinkle the rest of the olive oil over the grape leaves, then add the lemon juice and enough chicken broth to cover. If during cooking you run out of chicken broth just add water. 
    • Take a plate that will fit into the cooking pot and wrap it in aluminum foil, then wrap it in parchment paper.  Place it upside down on top of the grape leaves. This will weigh them down to prevent them from floating around in the pan. Place the lid on the Dutch oven.
    • Cook in a preheated 350° F oven for about 2 hours.  Once in a while during cooking, check to make sure there is enough liquid in the pot.  If it gets too low, just add some more.  The cooking time is long, but that's because the grape leaves have to soften and get as tender as the filling.

    • The grape leaves can be served warm or at room temperature.  Those stems that lined the cooking pot can be discarded, they were there just to add extra flavor.  I hope you make these and enjoy them in good health!