Grapes of Wrap

One of the fun things about potlucks is that they can be unpredictable.

Besides the usual items that you might find at one such as meats, cheeses, chips, dips and assorted raw vegetables, there can be soups, sloppy Joes, casseroles and any number of desserts.

We’re having a potluck Wednesday, and I’m bringing something that probably isn’t found on many menus — stuffed grape leaves. The reason for the potluck is that it’s the last day of one of my co-workers, and she requested that I make the grape leaves.

I just happened to have some grape leaves frozen in water in my freezer. I always freeze some of the leaves (about 50 or so per container) so we can have the dish that traces its roots to the eastern Mediterranean over the winter.

I make my stuffed grape leaves by mixing about a pound or so of ground meat (bison), about a cup of brown or white rice, a clove or two of minced garlic, a little flaked onion, some dried mint and cinnamon, salt and pepper to taste.

Then, I place a bit of the mixture on each leaf, roll them up and stick them atop some flat beef bones that are on the bottom of my cast-iron Dutch oven. Next, I mix a 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes and a small can of tomato sauce and pour it around the outside of the Dutch oven, being careful not to put any over the stuffed grape leaves.

Finally, I put a plate on top of the grape leaves (this holds the grape leaves in place while they cook) and cover on the pot. I then cook this on low to medium heat for about 2 to 3 hours.

While the grape leaves are cooking, I mix a bowl of tzatziki, a Greek sauce made of cucumbers, yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and a little dill.

Following you will find the tzatziki recipe I like, along with another version of stuffed grape leaves.
 

Stuffed Grape Leaves
50 grape leaves
4 lamb bones or 6 chicken wings
1 teaspoon salt
Juice of 3 lemons
Stuffing (recipe follows)
Soak fresh grape leaves in hot water for 15 minutes to soften. Remove from water, squeeze out excess moisture and remove stems. Place 1 tablespoon of filling across each leaf. Fold bottom of leaf up, fold both sides in, and roll away from you.
Place lamb bones on the bottom of a saucepan. Arrange stuffed leaves in layers on the top of the bones. Alternate the direction of the layers.
Sprinkle salt over stuffed leaves. Press leaves down by placing an inverted plate on top of the leaves. (This also will hold them in place while they cook.)
Add water to reach the top of the dish. Cover and simmer on a low flame for 40 minutes or until tender.
For the last 10 minutes of cooking, remove the plate and add the juice of three lemons. Serve with lemon wedges and plain yogurt.
STUFFING:
2/3 cup long grain rice, rinsed in water
1 pound ground lamb or ground chuck
3 teaspoons butter
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Combine stuffing ingredients and mix well.

Tzatziki
16 ounces (2 cups) of thick Greek yogurt
4 to 10 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup of diced or grated cucumber
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 teaspoons of lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried dill weed
Prepare all ingredients in advance. Combine oil and lemon juice in a medium mixing bowl. Fold the yogurt in slowly, making sure it mixes completely with the oil. Add the garlic, according to taste, and the cucumber. Stir until evenly distributed. Garnish with a bit of green and serve well chilled.
Yield: About 2½ cups.
 

Stuff It

A couple of times a month, several of my peers and I who work together Tuesday nights get together and have a potluck.

Usually, we have a theme. One week, we had an "oyster fest," at which everyone brought something associated with — you guessed it — oysters. Next month, we’re going to have a Cinco de Mayo feast, which happens to fall on a Tuesday.

This coming Tuesday, it’s going to be  an Italian/stuffed themed. So far, the menu includes stuffed pasta shells, stuffed mushroom caps and stuffed grape leaves. I’ll be making the grape leaves, which are stuffed with meat, rice and spices, along with a tzatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce. They’re a big hit in our house.

Although grape leaves have been a favorite of mine since my youth, I never learned how to make them until a former co-worker showed me how many years later. Her version was a little different from the one used by my old friend Ron’s Lebanese mom, but nonetheless, it’s quite tasty.

For thousands who trace their roots to the countries surrounding the eastern Mediterranean — Lebanon, Greece and Syria — making grape leaves is a familiar rite of spring.

It won’t be until sometime in June before I’ll be able to harvest some fresh grape leaves from my backyard vines, but in the meantime, ones frozen in water will have to do for Tuesday’s potluck.

Grape leaves also are available in jars at many grocery and specialty stores, but fresh leaves generally are regarded as more tender, and they’re free of the salty brine packing that accompanies jarred leaves.

Here’s my recipe for stuffed grape leaves, along with ones for tzatziki and stuffed manicotti, just in case you want to have your own "stuffed" fest.

Stuffed Grape Leaves
50 grape leaves
3 or 4 flat beef bones
1 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
FILLING:
1 cup long grain rice, rinsed in water
1 pound ground chuck
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak fresh grape leaves in hot water for 15 minutes to soften. Remove from water, squeeze out excess moisture and remove stems. Place 1 tablespoon or so of filling across each leaf. Fold bottom of leaf up, fold both sides in, and roll away from you.
Place bones on the bottom of a deep saucepan or Dutch oven. Arrange stuffed leaves vertically on the top of the bones.
Press leaves down by placing an inverted plate on top of the leaves. (This also will hold them in place while they cook.)
Mix the tomatoes and sauce and pour around the outside edge of the saucepan, using a knife to push stuffed grape leaves aside.
Cover and simmer on a low flame for 40 minutes or until tender.
Serve with lemon wedges and tzatziki.

Tzatziki
3 cups yogurt
Juice of one lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 medium cucumbers, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon kosher salt for salting cucumbers
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
 Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Peel cucumbers, then cut in half lengthwise and take a small spoon and scrape out seeds. Discard seeds. Dice cucumbers, then put in a colander, sprinkle on 1 tablespoon salt and let stand for 30 minutes to draw out water. Drain well and wipe dry with paper towel.
In food processor with steel blade, add cucumbers, garlic, lemon juice, dill and a few grinds of black pepper. Process until well blended, then stir this mixture into the yogurt. Taste before adding any extra salt, then salt if needed. Place in refrigerator for at least two hours before serving so flavors can blend.
Yield: 3 to 4 cups. (You can cut the recipe in half.)

Stuffed Manicotti
STUFFING:
1 pound. lean ground beef
1 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
1 pint ricotta (low-fat)
2 green onions, sliced
2 tablespoons basil
1 tablespoon salt
OTHER INGREDIENTS:
1 poune manicotti noodles
Jar of spaghetti sauce
Brown meat; season with basil and salt. Drain well; let cool. Combine meat, grated mozzarella, ricotta and onions.
Cook manicotti according to package less one-third of the suggested time; manicotti should be a little stiff. Stuff each manicotti. If noodle tears, just press it into stuffing and lay torn side down in pan.
Pour small amount of sauce in bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Place stuffed noodles in dish, cover with sauce and crumbled stuffing mix if there is any left over. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 40 minutes.
Note: This recipe freezes and reheats well.