UPDATED BLOG POST with Ingredients list:
I now make this recipe several times a year, including Easter lunch! It is now an Easter tradition for the Els. They are so delicious. (Even better reheated the second day!) I've added a few details to this post to make it easier to follow.
These are directions on how to make the BEST LEBANESE GRAPE LEAVES IN THE WORLD! Seriously, they are so good.
Let me give you a little history as to why you should try this recipe and consider this a recipe from an expert. No, I'm not the expert! I am just the student. But, I am learning from an expert.
My husband's father's family is from Lebanon. My father-in-law moved to the United States in the 70's to attend a university and met my mother-in-law. She is a fifth generation Texan. She was an adventurer and loved to travel abroad. So, while dating my father-in-law, she took off on a great adventure to meet his parents and learn about the Lebanese culture. While in Lebanon, she embraced the culture and his family. His family loved her, taught her many things and she was a bright shining star (and a blonde haired beauty) who they enjoyed having in Lebanon very much!
Luckily, for all of us, she married my father-in-law and is an amazing cook! Many years later, she is now an expert in cooking Middle Eastern faire. I asked her to teach me and this is the result. I am going to keep this so I can refer to it each time we make grape leaves at my house.
Please note, if you have ever had grape leaves that were cold at a restaurant- you probably did not have grape leaves like this. These are served hot and they have lamb and rice in them- they are not vegetarian.
If you decide to try this, please reply to this post. I'd love to hear how it goes!
The first challenge: What to buy and where to shop. If you are in the Houston area- there are many grocers that specialize in Middle Eastern foods. A great one is Phoenicia. It is like a Sam's Club for Middle Eastern food. It is huge. They even have fresh pita bread that comes down from a conveyer belt in the middle of the store. It's entertaining for adults and kids alike.
INGREDIENTS list for 2 lbs of ground lamb mixture:
2 jars of Orlando California Grape Leaves, 16oz. each (rinsed)
3 tablespoons 7 spices (1T for boiling shanks and 2T for lamb/rice mixture
3 cups of Calrose Rice (Riz Masri)
4 pounds of lamb shank (approximately 4 shanks will fill the bottom of a large boiling pot or dutch oven)
2 pounds of ground lamb
lemons for 1 cup of fresh lemon juice and extras to cut for garnish
3 tablespoons of kosher salt (1 tablespoon per pound of ground lamb plus 1 tablespoon for boiling shanks)
Grave leaves. Buy 2 jars of Orlando California Grape leaves. They are stored in a jar so that they will remain preserved. I used 2 jars of grape leaves for Easter and made 152 grape leaves. Remember the grape leaves must be washed thoroughly before you cook with them, or your result will be REALLY SALTY grape leaves!
7 spices. We will use this to season the lamb and the rice.
5 pound bag of Calrose Rice (Riz Masri)
Lemons for garnish and lemon juice (which we will use for the last few minutes while cooking the grape leaves.)
We also need salt. That's all we need for our ingredients. Now, it's time to get to work!
First, we must rinse the grape leaves. As I mentioned above, this is a crucial step. Without rinsing the leaves, they will be very salty and not taste good at all.
Now, let's boil the lamb shanks. Get a large pot of water.
Add one tablespoon of 7 spices
And add one table spoon of kosher salt. Place the lamb shanks in the pot and bring water to a boil. Cover and simmer for half an hour. (if the shanks are frozen simmer for 1 hour) The shanks do not need to be completely cooked at this point, because they will cook more with the grape leaves.
In a separate bowl, we will make the rice/ground lamb mixture. We will start with rinsing the rice. Use 1.5 cups of rice per pound of ground lamb. Add water to the rice and rinse. This will make the rice easier to work with. I usually rinse the rice in a very fine colander.
Add the ground lamb and a 1 tablespoon 7 spices per pound of ground lamb to the drained rinsed rice. Add 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of ground lamb. Mix this together well.
Lay the grape leaf (shiny side down) on a plate with the stem at the top. Cut the stem off the top. (To simplify this step, I pull off the stem as I wash each leaf individually)
Pinch a small amount of the ground lamb/rice mixture, as pictured and place in the middle of one grape leaf
Wrap the grape leaf, like a present, bringing up the sides first and then loosely rolling the entire thing together. The shiny part of the leaf should be down so that it is the outside of the roll, once the grape leaf is rolled around the ground lamb and rice. Make sure to roll loosely. This will give the rice room to expand as it cooks in the grape leaf. If you roll too tightly, the grape leaves will not be able to stay together and they will pop open as they cook.Always remove the stem. Also, if the grape leaves are too large they can be cut in half.
Carefully place the rolled grape leaves in a container.
Once the lamb shanks are finished with their first stage of cooking. Remove them from the pot.
Cut some of the meat off of the lamb shanks. The goal is to place the shanks and meat evenly at the bottom of a clean pot to make a nice even layer to place the rolled grape leaves. You can use the same pot where you boiled the shanks, just be sure to clean it before this next step.
This photo demonstrates the lamb shanks and meat in an even layer at the bottom of the pot.
Ready to add the grape leaves.
Take the rolled grape leaves and place them as evenly as possible in the pot on top of the lamb and lamb shanks. Make sure to place the rolled grape leaves down on the point of the leaf so they will not come unrolled while cooking.
The result is a beautiful pot full of grape leaves ready to cook! Add water to the pot until the grape leaves are completely covered. Place the pot on the stove top until bubbly. Simmer on medium to medium low for 2.5-3 hours. While cooking, place small plates (instead of a pot lid) directly on the grape leaves. This keeps them under the water, allows them to breathe and cook perfectly. The grape leaves must remain covered with water while cooking. I use a tea kettle on a separate burner to boil water on the stove top and add this to the grape leaves pot as needed.
Once the grape leaves are finished cooking turn off the stove (approximately 2.5 - 3 hours). Pour fresh lemon juice over the entire pot. Use a liberal amount of lemon juice- at least one half cup or one cup if cooking in a large pot.
To serve, slice lemons and wash and cut green onions. Grape leaves taste great with a sqeeze of lemon juice and a green onion.
Ready to serve. I've removed everything from the pot and placed the lamb in the center of the serving dish and the grape leaves around. It makes for a "wow" presentation. Save the juices from the pot. My husband likes to pour these over his grape leaves. You can also save the pot juices for later (leftovers) in the fridge and the oils will harden, so you can easily scrape them off the top.
Grape leaves are also served with mint leaves. I've placed them in a small vase, so they double as decoration and as a garnish.
I am so happy with the way my grape leaves turned out. They are so amazing. Thank you, Mary for teaching me this amazing skill. I promise to teach this to my children and grandchildren. Love, El Momma