Um Amer (mother of Amer) was renowned throughout her community for her tightly rolled, pinky-sized Warak Einab Bil Zait (stuffed grape leaves cooked in oil) and her crunchy, succulent Kibbeh (stuffed meatballs) and I was duly impressed. So much so that I asked her, through her interpreting daughter, if she would teach me how to make them. The date was set, my notebook and pen primed but alas, when I arrived, she handed me a platter of already made kibbeh - not to say that I didn't enjoy them, but Um Amer shortly after passed away and the secret of her technique went with her. To this day my kibbeh are still sub-par and I have determined, the creation of my favorite Arab savory must be part of the genetic code of those born in the Levant. However, the Warak (called dolma in Greek)-well mine may not be as pretty and dainty as the neatly stacked pile of a hundred or so that Um-Amer served but they are very acceptable. Warak (grape leaves) are filled with a rice-ground lamb or beef mixture, seasoned with cinnamon and allspice and laced with pine nuts and parsley. The meat may be left out for a vegetarian version. They are either served hot, warm, or cold, the hot version usually cooked in a pot amongst layers of stewing lamb or beef, sliced tomatoes, sometimes stuffed eggplant and zucchini and potatoes - a one pot meal! The cold version is featured as an appetizer as part of the mezza (appetizer course). Olive oil and lemon are added to the cooking pot, then the rolls doused with this magic concoction again after cooking. The rolling of the grape leaf is the trickiest part but don't let this deter you. Once you've tried your hand at it a time or two you'll feel incredibly domestic in the Mediterranean vein! Grape leaves can be purchased in glass jars in most groceries in the Italian or international sections, or frozen in Middle Eastern groceries. I prefer the frozen as they are generally more tender. Better yet, pick your own leaves off your grape vines or as I did this summer, from the neighbor's nosey, wandering vines. The smaller paler leaves produce a more tender result.
Warak Einab Bil Zait
60 grape leaves, fresh or preserved
6 ounces ground beef or lamb
1/2 cup medium-grain rice, soaked in salt water
1 large onion, minced
1/2 cup chopped parsley
5 leaves mint, finely minced (optional)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large tomato, finely chopped
5 tab. olive oil
1/.2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 tsp. salt
2 large sliced tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
-Rinse grape leaves in cold water and blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes in 3 or 4 batches. Remove and rinse with cold water and drain.
-Gently fry onion in 1 tab. oil until soft. Add ground meat and brown, breaking up finely. Add 3 garlic cloves and saute 1 minute longer. Stir in mint, drained rice, parsley, minced tomato, 2 tab. olive oil, salt, pepper allspice and cinnamon.
-To shape: Place a vine leaf, shiny side down on work surface. Snip off stem if necessary. Place about 1 tablespoon of filling near stem end, fold end and sides over filling and roll up firmly.
(See pictures below) Line base of a large heavy pot with unfilled grape leaves. Carefully place filled grape leaves on bottom of lined pan, seam side down, snuggly fitting them into a single layer - if they don't all fit, create a second layer on top of the first. Cover filled leaves with a layer of sliced tomatoes.
-Pour water in pot to just barely cover tomatoes. Add 2 tab. lemon juice and 2 tab. olive oil. Place a heatproof plate or pie plate over the tomatoes to hold contents in place as they cook. Bring to a boil and cover the pot. Reduce to low simmer and cook the rolls about 40 minutes until the water is almost gone.
-Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove the warak from the pot and place in large bowl. Dress rolls with 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 large clove crushed garlic and 2 tab. fresh lemon juice.
-Serve chilled or at room temperature.