Inspired by a friend of my sister’s in Portland, OR, I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get a weekly potluck thing going. I’m a bit shy entertaining alone, so beginning something, even with a friend, has proven to be a daunting task. But this week I had my first three-person potluck, with the plan to make it a more populated, weekly event. I have a friend who relocated to New York from the Portland of Europe, aka Berlin, so it’s fitting that it was she who helped to get it going. To remind her of the Turkish food she had so much access to in Germany, and to offer her Greek Cypriot roommate a taste of home, I made stuffed grape leaves and feta walnut spread.
While cooking, I remembered the rustic version I created once while visiting a then boyfriend in New Paltz, New York. I was out for a jog along the Rail Trail, when I noticed, and harvested, abundant grape leaves from nearby vines. Those stuffed grape leaves had as much to do with the prepackaged sort one finds in the supermarket as cheddo cheez has to do with Farmhouse Dorset cheddar, but though I used brined leaves this time, and they lacked the textural heft of fresh leaves, they still contributed to a complexly flavored dish.
It is difficult in New York to muster the desire to travel more after a day full of crowded subway rides, but when finished cooking, I packed up my food, and bared the three-train rush hour commute from one part of Brooklyn, through Manhattan, to another part of Brooklyn. During our convivial evening, my friend’s roommate told of his Cypriot family’s tradition of stuffing grape leaves with ground meat, and my friend recounted adventures from her job search, and told tales of their loft’s bagel-hungry resident “large mouse”. A veritable New York evening, and a gentle start to what we hope will become a weekly ritual. Easy to create community with good company, a little wine, and food shared with love. I just have to remind myself that it's worth it to get on the metaphorical train.
Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe (Zeytinyağlı Yaprak Sarması, or Yalancı)
This recipe is nicknamed yalancı, meaning “fake” in Turkish, because the grape leaves can also be made stuffed with meat, as my friend’s roommate’s family made it. The rice and the pine nuts and the currants are seen as meat substitutes. The meat dish is generally served hot, and this one is served cool, or at room temperature. Both are delicious.
adapted from The Sultan’s Kitchen, by Özcan Ozan
1 (16 oz) jar grape leaves, drained (or fresh leaves, about 36 of them, plus several more for lining the casserole dish)
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
for the stuffing:
3 tablespoons currants
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 small Spanish onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
1 cup medium grain brown rice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/4 cups hot water
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
If using fresh grape leaves, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil, and place them in the boiling water until the leaves have soften. Remove to drain on the edge of a colander. With a sharp knife, cut out the small protruding stem from each leaf. Set the grape leaves aside.
If using brined leaves in a jar, rinse each leaf in cool water quickly, and remove the small stem from each leaf. Drain on edge of a colander.
To make the stuffing, heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and cook the pine nuts for about 2 minutes, until they’re golden brown. Add the currants, onion, rice, cinnamon, and 2 1/4 cups of hot water. Stir the mixture, cover the pot, and cook gently for about 40 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and mix in the dill, parsley, and mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the stuffing cool for 30-40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. To assemble the sarmas, line up 36 of the grape leaves side by side, vein side up and with the notch where you removed the stem closest to you. Place one tablespoon of the stuffing at the end of the leaf close to you. Fold the end nearest to you over the filling, then fold both sides of the leaf over the filling. Roll up the leaves -- but not too tightly or they may burst.
Line a flameproof casserole dish with half the remaining grape leaves. Arrange the sarmas on top of the leaves, seam-side down. Pour 2 cups hot water, the olive oil, and the lemon juice over them. Cover the sarmas with the remaining grape leaves. Place crumpled wet parchment paper over the grape leaves, and weigh it down with an ovenproof plate (one small enough to fit inside the dish). Cover the dish, and on the stovetop over medium heat, bring the liquid to a boil (about 5 minutes). Move the dish to the oven and cook gently for about 45 minutes, or until the sarmas are tender and the water has been absorbed.
Transfer the sarmas to a serving dish. Cover them and refrigerate. serve chilled. Garnish with lemon wedges.