What’s the connection between my Czechoslovakian grandmother and stuffed grape leaves? My grandmother Ruth survived the war by the skin of her teeth. World War II broke out when she was a teenager, and she lived through it with the partisans in the forests. At the end of 1944- when she was in her early twenties- Grandma managed to get on a ship to Palestine, but the British wouldn’t let the ship dock and the ship, with its passengers, turned around and headed to Cyprus. It was a difficult journey: the voyage took longer than expected and food was running out, the passengers suffered from typhoid fever and other diseases that they brought with them from a shattered Europe and, at the same time, only began to process the horrors of the war they had lived through.
After a month at sea, my grandmother and the rest of the passengers arrived at a refugee camp in Cyprus, where good Cypriot mothers awaited their arrival with interest (and eager hands), and for their first meal in the refugee camp they were served grape leaves stuffed with love. These grape leaves were the first thing in 8 years that someone with a good heart and good intentions had made my grandmother eat. They had the taste of a safe haven, of freedom, of hope for a new life. It was her first good memory after 8 years of hell. Grandma, who had already started cooking, learned there how to make stuffed vine leaves, and since then they have been an integral part of the family.
I continue to make Grandma’s stuffed grape leaves, and this has become one of the dishes that I identify with the most. And here’s a tip: I buy a large amount of fresh grape leaves in season and freeze them. Freezing breaks down the structure of the leaf, and after thawing, there is no need to blanch them – they are already soft and ready to roll.
Ingredients for Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 14 oz (400 grams) Grape Leaves fresh or frozen
For the Filling:
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 1½ cups round rice of the Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma, or Vialone Nano variety
- 2 teaspoons Salt
- 1 bunch parsley chopped
- 1 bunch dill leaves chopped
- 1 bunch mint leaves chopped
- 1 tomato grated
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 1 garlic cloves crushed
- 1 cup Arak or ouzo
- 1½ cups water or vegetable stock, boiling
For preparing the pot and cooking the stuffing:
- 4 cups (1 liter) olive oil
- 2-3 tomatoes sliced into thin rings
- 7 garlic cloves thinly sliced
- 10.6 oz (300 grams) golden raisins
Prepare the Filling:
1. Pour oil into a pot, add chopped onion and cook for 10 minutes on medium-high heat until golden. Add the rice and salt and mix. Add herbs, tomato, tomato paste and garlic and mix. Add the ouzo or arrack, and vegetable stock or water, bring to a boil and cover the pot. Lower the heat and cook for about 25 minutes until the rice is soft. Stir two or three times during cooking. Cool the cooked rice to room temperature.
Stuff the Grape Leaves:
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare a bowl filled with ice water.
3. Blanch the grape leaves in boiling water for 3-4 seconds until they change color to greenish-brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to ice water to stop the cooking. Spread on a clean kitchen towel to dry.
4. If working with preserved vine leaves, instead of blanching, place them in a strainer, rinse gently under a stream of cold water and spread on a clean kitchen towel to dry.
5. Place a vine leaf with its base facing you and cut the stem. Place a spoonful of the stuffing in the center of the leaf. Fold both sides of the leaf to the center and roll from the base to the top, to obtain a cigar shape. Place the stuffed leaf aside, seam side down, so that it does not open. Fill all the vine leaves in the same way.
Assemble the pot and cook:
6. When you have finished filling the grape leaves, pour some of the olive oil into a wide-rimmed pot. Line the bottom of the pot with an even layer of tomato slices, sprinkle half the amount of garlic, and a small handful of raisins. Above the padding layer, pack in the grape leaves. If necessary (depending on the size of the pot and the amount of stuffed leaves), place another layer of tomato slices, sliced garlic clove, and raisins, and then more grape leaves. Sprinkle the remaining raisins and tomato slices over the last layer and pour the olive oil on top.
7. Place on the stove over high heat and cook for about 7 minutes, until boiling. Cover the pot, reduce the flame to low and cook for about an hour, until the grape leaves are soft.