Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sarma- aka Stuffed Grape Leaves

Well readers!

Way back when this summer, my birthday was extra special this year because my Grandma Viola trekked all the way up north from Florida by train so we could celebrate our birthdays together. In honor of this momentous occassion, we had a party with a ton of great food. There was lobster involved, so you know I was happy.

One of the dishes we made was one of my all time favorites- sarma, stuffed grape leaves. If you have never had stuffed grape leaves before, well, i am shaking my head. GO! Find them! Make them! Eat them!

Sarma as I know them are grape leaves stuffed with a rice mixture, rolled up like half-cigars. There are many different recipes for sarma, meat and meatless, sweeter, nuttier, I googled "sarma" and the first recipes listed were all for stuffed cabbage. hmmm. As a child, I had access to all kinds of sarma- we made them at home, people always brought them to family gatherings, they were a staple. I like them all- just the concept of a leaf-wrapped rice nugget is awesome to me!- but am less partial to the meat varieties. Sarma generally cooks for a long time, meat variations can have a tendency to be dry. As sarma is a dish that I ate a lot as a child, much like hummus and babaganoush (and taboule, which I haven't shared with you guys yet, but it's one of my all time favorites) it's a recipe that I feel very at home with, thus, it's not a recipe I have looked up very often. Imagine my surprise, upon looking up "stuffed grape leaves" when I found so many varieties. Ok, maybe I wasn't surprised at the variety of recipes, but I was slightly taken aback to see a recipe for a total of 18 grape leaves- 18? why would you go to the trouble of making the recipe if you are only going to make 18? Part of the joy of sarma is making a big old pot. plenty to go around. 18 just seems like deliberate deprivation, and we don't go for that on Brooklyn Girls Cooking.

So. Sarma, let's go!

1 cup rice(carolina)
3 cups chopped onion
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 small can of tomato paste
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cinammon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground clove
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt (to taste)
3/4 cup water (to fill the pot)

Take 3 cups of chopped onion, and sautee it in a large saucepan over high heat in the 3/4 cup of vegetable oil. Once the onion is softened, add the cup of rice and stir until the rice is warm and coated by the oil. Add the bunch of chopped parsley, most of a small can of tomato paste, 1/2 tsp of cinammon, 1/2 tsp of allspice, 1/2 tsp of ground clove, 2 tsp of sugar, 1 tsp of salt. Stir while cooking so that the ingredients are well combined and the rice is coated. Add in the juice of half a lemon while the rice cooks for about 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is hot and the lemon juice is absorped. Remove the rice mixture from the heat and allow it to cool.

While the rice mixture is cooling, take a jar of packed grape leaves, and drain them of the liquid. Usually, I buy grape leaves packed in brine, they need to be washed gently to help separate them and wash away the brine. After washing the leaves, gently go through them, separating them and putting aside any that are "unusable" as wrappers.
Generally, if there are big holes or tears in the leaves, you may not be able to use them to wrap the filling. Sometimes, if the leaf is large enough, you may be able to overlap the torn portion and still use it. Also put aside any leaves that look very large/veiny. These larger, older leaves are a little tougher, and while you can cut out the main vein to cut down on the toughness/stringiness, try to set aside the tougher leaves. These older or torn leaves you should put aside and save for separating the layers of stuffed grape leaves in the pot.

In the bottom of a large pot, place a layer of the larger leaves. On top of the leaf layer, place a layer of ~1/4 inch thick sliced potatoes (not too thin) followed by another layer of leaves over top potatos. Is the rice mixture room temperature? Yes? Well then you're ready to roll! Take about 1 tsp of filling, place it towards the base of the leaf, roll the leaf over the filling, folding the sides in to create a small cigar-shaped nugget of goodness!

You don't want to roll them too tight, as the rice will cook and expand. Place the stuffed leaf in the bottom of the pot. Once you have a full layer of stuffed grape leaves, place a layer of unstuffed leaves flat over the layer in order to start a new layer.

Once you have stuffed all the grape leaves (how many you end up with depends on how much stuffing you put in each leaf, it can vary a lot. In this last batch we had about 3 layers, with about 40 per layer) Fill the pot up with water to the top layer of grape leaves (the rice needs to cook) and top with the leftover tomato paste. Feel free to water the tomato paste down before you add it so that it is more liquidy than paste-y.

Put the top of the pot on, and put it on the stove top over high heat, to bring the liquid to a boil, before turning the heat down to low. (When we made them this summer, we put a plate on top of them to weigh them down a bit) Let it cook until the water is absorped. Don't worry about it overcooking, I think we left the pot on the stove for 2 hours or so. If the liquid has been absorped and the rice isn't cooked, just add more water, and leave the pot cooking for a little longer. Once the water is absorped and you turn off the heat, you can let them sit for an hour to set and finish cooking. Once you unpack the pot, and plate the grape leaves, you will have a delicious layer of tender potatoes at the bottom that have served the purpose of protecting the bottom layer of grape leaves from getting burned, and have, in the meantime, absorped all the flavors, and cooked beautifully.

While this is the recipe we have been making for years, I remember really loving a version that was a little sweeter and had (I think) nuts in it, so I think I'm going to fiddle with this and try some variations. I will keep you all posted!

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