There’s something ever-so-charming about edible little packages: tamales, spring rolls, pasties, grape leaves…every culture seems to have a neatly-wrapped specialty. (Maybe they appeal to our sense of orderliness?) Not only are these wrappables practical to eat and fun to make, their central position in any given cuisine means that centuries of tradition have fine-tuned their perfect blends of simple and savory ingredients.
One of my favorite stuff-and-wrap dishes is grape leaves — whether you make them vegetarian or with meat, you just can’t go wrong if you start out with authentic sheep’s-milk Feta and good-quality leaves that have been cured in water, sea salt, vinegar, and nothing else. And nutritionally speaking, since omega-3 fats are primarily found in the supple part of plants (the leaves of a plant versus its roots and berries), including grape leaves on your menu is a smart idea as well as a delicious one.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
(1/2 lb. ground lamb, optional)
1 small onion, diced
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 cup cooked brown rice (you can use leftover rice or cook a batch of fresh rice — just remember that 1/2 cup uncooked will yield more than 1 cup cooked rice)
1 T. fresh mint, slivered, or 1 tsp. dried mint
About 4 oz. sheep’s-milk Feta, or more if you’re a big cheese fan
Approximately 20 brined grape leaves (you can find these at Mediterranean markets or well-stocked mainstream grocery markets)
1 lemon, sliced into thin wedges
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Locate and set aside an 11×7 glass pan. (If you add the lamb to the recipe, you might need more leaves and a 9×13 pan.)
Sautée onions (and lamb, if using) with a pat of butter or ghee over medium heat for about 3 minutes, stirring often, or until onions are soft. Stir in pine nuts, garlic, and tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for another 2 minutes to mellow the garlic (and finish cooking the lamb). Remove pan from heat immediately.
In a large bowl, combine the onion/lamb mixture, the rice, the mint, and the Feta, crumbling the Feta by hand if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste.
To stuff the leaves, pull out a bunch of leaves and carefully unroll and separate them, setting them on a plate as you go. When you have about 20 unrolled and ready, place an individual leaf on a cutting board, then spoon a mound of the rice mixture onto the leaf. (Only spoon on about a tablespoon to avoid overstuffing. You may have to add more or less depending on the size of the particular leaf you’re working with.) Carefully wrap the left, right, and bottom edges onto the filling, then roll over once or twice to seal the top flap of your leafy “envelope,” so to speak. Transfer the stuffed leaf to the glass pan and place it seam-side down.
Repeat until you’ve used up all your stuffing. (Extra leaves can be stored in the refrigerator for at least a month.) Your pan should be fully stuffed with individual leaf packages. Stud the packages with the lemon wedges and then pour the stock over the entire pan. (If you’re making lamb-stuffed grape leaves and are using a 9×13 pan, you may need a full 2 cups of stock.)
Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees F and bake for another 30 minutes.
Serve hot as a main dish or an appetizer, or serve any time within 3 days of having refrigerated your leftovers. Top with additional Feta if you like.