Grape leaves are the purpose of my existence. They epitomise all that is excellent about home cooking and show Lebanese cuisine at it's best - simple, skilled and absolutely delicious.
Growing up, these were always my favourite and even today, my mum still calls me when she's made some because she is such a lovely little woman.
There are two ways to make grape leaves; one is to roll them and tie them up with some string and cook them in a tomato sauce. This is more common for grape leaves stuffed with mince meat and rice.
The other less fiddly way is to stack them in a pot and slow cook them in brine until the leaves are well done.
I much prefer the vegan version with parsley, tomatoes, short grain rice and onion forming the core ingredients.
You don't want to chop the ingredients too roughly as you will need the stuffing to roll easily without tearing the grape leaf, but obviously it is not tabbouleh so don't be too precious.
Who knew you could successfully plant grape leaves in the UK without much effort. This year we managed to grow two different grape leaf plants and we even managed a few bunches of grapes which made me disproportionately happy.
Try and find a plant that gives you rounder broad leaves rather than the ones with lots of gaps as they are harder to roll.
With fresh leaves, you will need to blanch them in hot water before you stuff them. You can store them in brine for a few months and I've heard they freeze well too though I have never tried myself.
When out of season, you can find jars of pre-blanched grape leaves in your local Middle Eastern store and they taste just as delicious. I have found the Californian, Turkish or Egyptian varieties are the best.
I like to line the bottom of the pan with some sliced potatoes as they absorb all the lovely juices. The key to getting perfect grape leaves is to taste the brine just as it comes to the boil.
The brine will indicate how salty or lemony the final dish will be and if I get that right then I can just leave it to slow cook for another hour.
Some people like to add a drizzle of pomegranate molasses as the end but I don't think it necessary as you don't want to conceal the fresh flavours.
To roll up the grape leaves, flatten out a leaf on a large plate and add a tablespoon of filling. Bring in the sides at each end and roll up.
Don't press too tightly or they will tear but don't make them too loose or they will fall apart in the pot when cooked.
Although grape leaves are often relegated to starters in most restaurants, they are often the star of the show in many Arab homes, especially when they are turned out upside down onto a giant platter and suddenly three hours of work disappears in five minutes 😝 but hey, we are talking about life long food memories which make it worth it every single time.
Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves (warak enab bi zeit)
Vegetarian version of stuffed grape leaves
- 1 Jar 450g of grape leaves in brine or approx 60 fresh leaves
- 2 medium sized potatoes
- 2 large bunches of parsley
- 8 medium sized tomatoes
- 2-3 spring onions
- ⅓ of a medium onion or 1 shallot
- small handful of mint leaves
- 2 cups of short grain rice
- 2 lemons juiced
- 1 tablespoon tomato concentrate
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon 7 spice
- ½ cup of regular olive oil
- 1 cup of water
If you are using fresh leaves, blanche them in hot water for five minutes and drain. If you are using grape leaves from the jar, rinse them in cold water and drain
Finely chop the parsley, tomatoes, mint and onions. Add to a bowl
Add the rice, salt, 7 spice, tomato concentrate, olive oil and the juice of 1 lemon to the bowl and stir well
Peel the potatoes and slice approximately 1 cm thick and arrange them at the bottom of the pot
Prepare your work area with one tray to roll the grape leaves beside the mixture and cooking pot
Lay out one grape leaf on the tray and remove any stems
Add 1 tablespoon of mixture in the middle of the grape leaf and tuck in the sides. Roll up firmly into a cigar shape. Adjust the mixture amount depending on the size of the leaf
Stack the grape leaves into layers in the pot. If you have too much liquid in the mixture drain some onto the stacked leaves using a fine sieve
Leave around 10cm space at the top of the pot as the grape leaves will expand when cooked
When you finish rolling the grape leaves, add ½ teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water and the juice of half a lemon to make the brine
Press down the grape leaves with a sturdy plate or lid one size smaller than your pot. Pour on enough brine to cover and turn the heat on to medium high
After 20 minutes, reduce the heat to low and remove the plate/lid. Taste the brine that has come to the surface and adjust the salt/lemon levels as necessary. Cook for another hour on the lowest heat setting.
Taste one stuffed grape leaf before you turn the heat off to make sure the leaves are well done
Turn the dish over onto a large platter for spectacle. Serve hot or cold.
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