If someone asked you when – or what- your first cooking experience was, would you be able to tell them without thinking?
I have no specific childhood recollections of getting my hands covered with gooey dough, or licking chocolate cake batter off the beaters. This is largely due to the fact that my maternal grandmother did the bulk of the baking, and her kitchen was upstairs from ours. I do, however, have fond memories of watching “Yeranuhe Nanny” turn simple ingredients into amazing recipes.
We were fortunate to have lived on the first floor of my grandparent’s 2-family house in Clifton, NJ. They chose to live upstairs (guess it reminded them of their mountainous homeland as they climbed the steps to the 2nd floor). My aunt & uncle lived next door, and a number of my grandparents Armenian friends from the ”old country” lived on the same block.
No Armenian back yard was complete without a grape arbor so, of course, one was planted. It took years before it was large enough to provide adequate shade for our picnic table, but more importantly, to produce enough grape leaves to provide the tender wrapping of the most delectable Sarma (Yalanchi).
I can recall Nanny being very specific as to the harvesting of her grape leaves, usually May, when the leaves were large enough to use, but very tender for eating. “Middle-June is too late!“, she’d say.
Preparing the leaves for use was another story. They were hand-picked at just the right time, gently cooked, drained, stacked, tightly wrapped for freezing so they could be used all year long. Fortunately, today we can purchase jars of leaves in our local supermarkets and specialty stores. No muss, no fuss.
Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 1 16-oz. jar Grape leaves in brine
- 2 cups onions (chopped)
- 3-4 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked rice (I use Uncle Ben's long grain parboiled rice)
- 1/4 cup tomato sauce
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/3 cup pine nuts (If you don't like pine nuts, omit them.)
- allspice, paprika, cumin – to taste
- 1/2 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley (chopped)
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Directions for Grape Leaves
- If using fresh grape leaves, place them in boiling water for about 5 minutes or until soft. Remove stems. If using bottled grape leaves, soak them in cool water for a few minutes, and remove stems. (Soaking bottled leaves helps to reduce some of the salt from the brine it is packed in.)
- Pat the excess water off each leaf. Set leaves aside.
Directions for Filling
- Sauté the onions in the oil until slightly tender. Stir in the rice & cook 10 min.
- Combine all of the other filling ingredients with the onions & rice. Cook another minute or two. Remove from heat. Let cool.
- Lay one grape leaf on a flat work surface, shiny side down.
- Place enough filling at the stem-end of the leaf, and spread it about three-quarters across the width of the leaf. The amount of filling should be about the size of your pinky, depending on the size of the leaf. Start rolling the leaf from the stem end upward (away from you), then fold each side of the leaf over the filling, and continue to roll upward. Fold firmly so the leaf won’t unravel during cooking. (NOTE: Don’t roll too tightly, however, because the rice will expand and the leaf could burst during cooking.)
- Line the bottom of the pot with some lettuce leaves. (This is a trick my grandmother shared with me. It prevents the stuffed grape leaves from sticking to the bottom of the pot.)
- Place rolled leaves in a large pot on top of the lettuce leaves. Sprinkle with a little oil & salt.
- Add enough hot water to cover the rolled leaves. Place a dish on top of the grape leaves to keep them in place. You might want to add another weight, such as a small pot filled with water to place on top of the dish. This keeps the grape leaves submerged for even cooking.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for 30-40 minutes until the rice is tender.
- Remove from pot; chill; serve with lemon wedges.