Elif is from Istanbul, and her two daughters attend the same school as my girls on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A few days before the first day of kindergarten (nearly three years ago), parents met for the first time in Central Park for a picnic, and that was when I was invited by Elif and her husband to join them as they set out a spread of Turkish delicacies, that included savory stuffed pastries called Borek, various homemade salads, and hand-rolled stuffed grape leaves. (They even had a large thermos-like canteen to serve hot Turkish tea!) This was when I knew that they were my kind of people, and I noted to myself that one day I would have to invite Elif over to cook and teach me some of her Turkish recipes.
Three years later, in late May 2016, I finally was able to organize a cooking date, and after dropping off the girls at school, Elif came back with me to show me some of her favorite vegetarian specialties. Stuffed grape leaves were at the top of my list so that is what we prepared first. Elif pointed out that in Istanbul (and perhaps Turkey overall) a bit of sugar and some dried currants are added to the filling to give a slight sweetness to balance with the saltiness of the grape leaves soaked in brine. The addition of a lot of cinnamon also gave it a nice Eastern flavor, that I thought was a bit different from the Greek kind that tastes more lemony. All in all you should give yourself about 3 to 3 1/2 hours so that you are not rushed and can take your time in carefully rolling each leaf. When finished, the stuffed leaves will be longer and thinner than the store-bought kind, and the outer leaves themselves should be tender with a slight bite, and not mushy.
Zeytinyagli Yaprak Sarmasi
(Stuffed Grape Leaves with Olive Oil, Rice, Cinnamon, Currants, and Pine Nuts)
(Yield: Serves 15 / Makes about 5 Dozen Stuffed Leaves)
Preparation Time: 2 1/2 to 3 Hours
One 32-ounce jar grape leaves, packed in brine
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped white onions
1 tablespoon dried mint leaves
2 cups cold water
1/3 cup pine nuts
½ cup dried currants
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup Turkish style rice (such as Osmancik) or Calrose rice
(a medium grain California type of white rice — not sushi rice),
rinsed several times in cold water and drained
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil mixed with 1 cup cold water
1. Dislodge the grape leaves from the jar and separate them gently. Place in a large bowl in the sink and rinse under cold running water. Set aside in a colander over a bowl to drain.
Prepare the Filling:
2. Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Add the chopped onions and cook, mixing constantly, until soft and transparent, but not browned, about 7 minutes. Reduce to a medium heat.
3. Measure out the dried mint into the palms of your hands, then grind the leaves into a powder directly over the skillet with the onions.
4. Add the water, pine nuts, dried currants, salt, cinnamon, sugar, and rice and mix well. Simmer over a low heat, uncovered, until liquid is mostly absorbed and mixture becomes thick and porridge-like, 7 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat and pour into a large bowl to cool to room temperature.
Stuff and Roll the Leaves:
5. Separate the smaller leaves from the larger ones into two piles (setting aside the ripped ones just for backup if needed). Take a large skillet, about 12 inches wide and 2 to 3 inches deep, and line the bottom with some of the broken and smaller leaves that won’t be used.
6. On a clean work surface, spread one of the larger grape leaves out with the underside (veins) facing up and the base or stem closest to you (the shiny side should be the outside of the stuffed leaf once rolled). Place about 2 teaspoons of the filling on the bottom-most center of each leaf and using your fingertips, gently arrange the filling in a long horizontal line about 3 inches long. (Note: You might need to adjust amount according to leaf size).
Fold the bottom parts of the leaf over the filling.
Fold each side in right where the filling ends.
Continue to tightly roll upward, making sure that the sides are always folded and tucked inward to create a long, cigar shape.
Place on top of the leaves lining the skillet and continue stuffing and rolling as many leaves as you can until the filling is finished.
(Note: Make sure to place the rolled leaves very close together in the skillet, and if necessary, you can layer the stuffed leaves in a criss-cross fashion.)
7. Pour the olive oil-water mixture evenly over the leaves. Place a small plate directly on top of the leaves to compress them and prevent unraveling while cooking, then cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer 1 to 1½ hours over low heat, or until leaves are tender but not mushy, and rice filling is very soft. (Note: Check the leaves every half hour and, if all of the liquid is absorbed, add another ½ cup water mixed with 2 tablespoons olive oil.)
8. Remove from heat and cool, covered, to room temperature.
Serve at room temperature arranged nicely on a platter, with fresh lemon squeezed on top.
Afiyet Olsun! (Bon Appetit!)