A neighbor recently gave me a batch of Lebanese stuffed grape leaves that his wife just made with her mother and I thought, “Homemade stuffed grape leaves?! Lebanese? There’s more than one type of stuffed grape leaves?!” I asked the neighbor where they got grape leaves and they said at the local grocery store.
In my mind, stuffed grape leaves were something you get in a can/jar or at the olive bar and has that slightly sour taste with rice, mint and dill. Little did I know there are many different styles of stuffed grape leaves: Some with meat and rice, some just rice, varying spices, and varying cooking styles. I also found that you can even brine your own leaves if you have a grape vine.
Of the many recipes out there, I narrowed it down to trying two recipes: one Greek style recipe by Nancy Gaifyllia on The Spruce Eats and the other a Lebanese style recipe by Yumna on Feel Good Foodie.
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Both recipes have meat in them, a conscious decision when selecting the recipes because I had never eaten stuffed grape leaves with meat in it. I just assumed it was only rice because that was all I ever knew. Nancy’s Greek style recipe mixes raw ground beef with the sautéed onions, herbs, and rice whereas Yumna’s Lebanese style recipe cooks the meat first and then mixes it with the rice and spices. I’m not sure what the benefit of cooking the meat first is, because it made the stuffing much more crumbly and difficult to wrap. Besides, the meat gets cooked when steaming the stuffed grape leaves anyway so it seemed an unnecessary step.
After you wrap a few, it’s easy to get the hang of it. One thing that Yumna mentions in her recipe that Nancy doesn’t is to cut off the stem. This is a very important step. No one wants to eat a fibrous stem. It also makes wrapping easier because the rest of the leaf is soft and pliable.
Nancy’s recipe instructs to put “a pinch (up to a teaspoon)” of the filling on the leaf. I don’t know where this amount came from, but a teaspoon is definitely not enough. Maybe with the smallest of leaves it would be about a teaspoon. Some leaves can be quite large in which case you end up putting a heaping tablespoon of filling in there.
A rather significant difference between the two recipes is the cooking method. Yumna uses sliced potatoes at the bottom to keep the grape leaves from burning or sticking to the bottom of the pot whereas Nancy’s recipe uses skewers. Nancy’s recipe has many photos, but there is no photo showing this step which I was the most confused about. An alternative she offers is to lay torn or unused grape leaves in the bottom. I didn’t have any skewers that fit the bottom of the pot (they were too long) so I made a cross with a pair of bamboo takeout chopsticks and laid some torn leaves on top of that. This method worked pretty well actually. The potato method works well too, but then you’re left with all these sliced potatoes. I didn’t want to waste the potatoes so I ended up frying them like scalloped potatoes.
It was unclear in Nancy’s recipe whether the lid goes back on after bringing to an initial boil and adding the lemon, so I actually cooked the grape leaves uncovered with just the plate (in my case a ceramic lid). The grape leaves came out quite nicely whereas for Yumna’s grape leaves I cooked them with the lid on and they exploded a little. I suspect it’s because I used a dutch oven and the heavy lid made it a little too hot and bubbly in there even at the lowest possible heat setting.
After all this hard work, was it worth it? I think so. The recipes were a good way to get started, but there are a few factors that made me not so enthusiastic about these particular recipes.
One, I’m not sure that the meat added anything. I think I actually prefer just the rice. Two, I’m not sure this is a follow-the-recipe-to-a-T kind of dish and can be adjusted to taste. I would definitely double the amount of dill and mint in Nancy’s recipe, and add onions to Yumna’s recipe.
I think the next time I try making stuffed grape leaves, I would sauté onions with rice, add salt, mix with tons of dill and mint, and cook with some broth or tomato or something.