Stuffed Grape Leaves

Vicky Neznansky

Note from Julie: I recently had the good fortune both to meet Vicky and her family, and to taste her stuffed grape leaves at the birthday party of a mutual friend.  These were the best-tasting stuffed grape leaves I had ever had.  When Vicky told me where she learned the recipe I was quite moved (see below).  I will admit I was a little nervous about making these – it seemed like something you should learn from your grandmother (how to roll the leaves, what the proportions should be, etc.).  I found that it was very relaxing, and not at all stressful to prepare!


Vicky's Note: The story behind this unusual dish is this:  A lot of people know the recipe for stuffed grape leaves, but hardly anyone uses meat – instead, it is a variation of the Greek stuffed grape leaves.  Some years ago I became the first group therapist for a group of Bukharian Jewish women who suffered from abuse and neglect.  Food became a central part of our group as it brought comfort, it was shared and appreciated, and it lifted self-esteem as these women were excellent cooks.  This dish was brought once and shared between all.  It tasted amazingly softer, tenderer than any of the grape leaves I've tried before.  The secret was revealed: chicken or any other meat bones had to be used to soften the leaves and to give the dish its special rich and tasty flavor.  I will always be grateful for this secret component to one of my favorite dishes and now I am sharing it with you with permission of these brave and resourceful women.

1 jar of grape leaves
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 1/2 cups uncooked white rice (Julie used long grain)
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped (approx. 1 cup)
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped (approx. 1 cup)
1 large onion, grated
1 6-ounce jar tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Chicken bones

Mix together the rice, meat, cilantro, and dill.  Add the grated onion and the tomato paste.  Mix up these ingredients and set aside.

Rinse the grape leaves and cut off any stems.  Separate the leaves.  Place the stuffing in the center of a leaf, wrap up the sides first, then roll and secure with top of leaf.  It will take approximately 1/2 hour to stuff and roll all the leaves.  [Julie's note: I had never done this before, so I was a bit nervous.  I placed each leaf so a point faced me.  I put a small handful of meat horizontally in the center of the leaf, then folded up the sides and rolled from the top down toward me.  I made 30 rolls with the filling, but they were large.  You could use a smaller amount of filling, approximately 1 tablespoon, to make smaller rolls.  The filling does expand as the rice cooks.]

Place the rolls in a pot, on top of the chicken bones, which you can lay out to cover the bottom.  Pack the rolls tightly in the pot.  Add water to cover.  Place a plate upside-down on top of the leaves so they don't rise to the surface and splash everything around.  [Julie's note: I have a large pasta pot with a steamer insert.  I put the chicken bones on the bottom, the rolled leaves on top, and I used the steamer insert to hold everything down.]

Leave on a small flame for 1 – 1 1/2 hours.  Cover pot while simmering.  Add salt and pepper as you cook – the water should be salty.  Taste and correct if necessary.

After the grape leaves are thoroughly cooked (taste to check – the rice should be soft), remove from the pot one at a time and place on a plate.  Serve warm.  If preparing in advance, store in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature or reheat in a microwave before serving.

Stuffed Grape Leaves