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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Grape Leaves stuffed with Meat and Rice

Grape leaves are one of the most delicious, traditional and complicated Middle Eastern dishes out there. This dish is lovingly referred to as yabraa, yabraq, waraq einab, dawali, dolmadas...each country calls it something different but everyone agrees that it is AMAZING. In this post I have tried to simplify the process as much as possible, and although this meal does not conform to the SavvyChef mantra of simple meal prep, its just too yummy not to share :) Luckily the ingredients are fairly simple, and the actual effort comes in the preparation.

This post has been almost a year in the making because I needed to cook it AMPLE times to ensure my ratios are absolute perfection before I encourage you to spend hours on preparation. There are almost no proper measurements available for exactly how much rice/meat/grape leaf ratio to prepare so you are not left with extra filling, and in this recipe I have finally accomplished that. My family thanks all the readers who have been urging me to complete a post on this recipe because of all the times they've eaten the tester meals ;)

There are many varieties for grape leaves, and each country in the Middle East (as well as Turkey, Greece...) prepares them differently. I am biased to the Syrian way, specifically the Damascene method. These grape leaves are succulent and juicy, stuffed with a seasoned rice and meat filling and then cooked until the leaf is fork tender in a tangy lemon and garlic sauce. This is my all time favorite meal, and I would eat it everyday if I could.

I highly recommend you read through the whole post before you begin to let you know what to expect as you go along.

Tips to ensure a smoother experience:
1. Have all of your spices and ingredients out and ready before you begin. Once you start mixing the filling with your hands it will be difficult to open cabinets and reach for things.
2. Block off a span of 2-3 hours (hopefully it won't take 3 hours) to complete this project, especially if it is your first time. I realize this is a large amount of time and it is difficult to do this with work/little children/other commitments, but if possible it makes a difference.
3. If it is your first time attempting grape leaves, either start in the morning or have a back up for that night's dinner. Plan on wrapping the grape leaves on one day and cooking the next (especially if you are going to slow cook them). This is what I do and it reduces the stress involved with needing to finish quickly.
4. Do not be discouraged if yours are not all the same size or if they look messy. The important thing is to keep the meat and rice mixture inside the grape leaf so it does not get out while cooking, and you will get the hang of it as you go along. You will get faster and your wrapped grape leaves will be neater with experience. There is a huge learning curve for this dish.
5. If you can get others in on this project it will add speed and fun! Traditionally people sat around together to wrap grape leaves and talked and shared jokes as they did so, which takes the tediousness out of the process and provides a fun experience.

Serves 6 as main entree

-2 1/2 cups calrose rice (short grain)
-2 1/2 tablespoons safflower threads (similar to saffron)
-1 pound ground beef or lamb, a higher fat content will yield better flavor (2 cups)
-1 tablespoon salt
-1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
-2 tablespoons all spice
-2 tablespoons oil or clarified butter (ghee)
-up to 1/4 cup water (if your meat is of a higher fat content you will need less water)
-16 ounce jar of grape leaves, drained and rinsed

-2 pounds lamb or beef steaks (preferably bone-in and with a layer of fat)
-1 tablespoon lemon pepper (optional)

-1 cup peeled whole garlic cloves
-1 cup lemon juice
-4 cups water
-1 tablespoon salt
-2 tablespoons lemon pepper (optional, this provides an extra tang)

-2 cups frozen artichoke bottoms
-11 ounces frozen green broad/fava beans
-1 cup sliced potato rounds
--Drizzle of oil or ghee

To make
-Open the jar of grape leaves and carefully remove leaves. Place them in a large bowl with water to soak and rinse out any lingering dirt. I leave these for about an hour then rinse them in a strainer.
-While the grape leaves are soaking, fill another bowl with water and soak rice for an hour. Drain, rinse with WARM WATER and set aside.
-Using the same bowl used to soak rice (I hate extra dish-washing) place the strained rice and add the safflower threads, grinding them with the palm of your hand to break up. Mix them into the rice mixture to give your rice a yellow color. Add the remaining filling ingredients (ground beef/lamb, salt, pepper, all spice, oil and water) and using your hands, thoroughly massage all the ingredients together until they are well mixed. You want your mixture to be slightly "wet" either by oil or water. When adding the water add slowly and use what you need until the mixture clumps together and doesn't stick to your hands.
-Set up a clean work station and remove any large stems from your grape leaves. I use kitchen shears to quickly snip the tips off large stems.
-Arrange an assembly line of grape leaves, with the stem facing towards you and the pointy part of the leaf facing away (the smooth part of the grape leaf is what lays on the table, and the rough side with all the small stems is facing upwards).
-Place about 1 teaspoon to 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling (depending on the size of your leaf) onto the lower middle half of each grape leaf and arrange into a thin line. Place the filling about 1/2 inch from the bottom of the stem and 1/2 inch in from the left and right of the edge of the leaf, leaving more space between the filling and the top of leaf for when you will fold it up.
-Fold over the bottom of the leaf to cover the rice mixture, then bring in the left and right sides of the leaf in over the rice mixture as well. Then slowly wrap the grape leaf towards the tip of the leaf (rolling away from your direction), tucking in the edges as you go along. (SEE TUTORIAL PICTURES AT THE END OF THIS POST)
-Repeat the process until you have wrapped all of your grape leaves. You will get the hang of it as you go along. Place the grape leaves on a platter as you work, keeping the smaller grape leaves separate.
-Sprinkle your steaks with lemon pepper (or just salt and pepper) and sear them in a skillet until a browned layer forms, about 2 minutes on each side. If you are using a pressure cooker to make your grape leaves use that pot to sear the steak and leave them inside. If you are using a slow cooker after you have seared the steaks transfer them to the slow cooker pot and arrange in a flat layer.
-Sprinkle about 1/4 of your garlic cloves over the seared steaks. Layer your optional toppings over the steak . I place the green broad beans first and then the artichoke bottoms, alternating with more garlic after each layer, leaving only a few cloves.
-Carefully arrange the grape leaves, placing the smaller grape leaves first and working your way around the pot in a tight layer. Pack them firmly and end with your largest grape leaves. Sprinkle any remaining garlic on top. Sprinkle the salt and optional lemon pepper, then pour the lemon juice and water evenly over the top. You can add an optional drizzle of oil or ghee if your steaks are not fatty enough.
-Place a flat HEAT-PROOF plate over the grape leaves and a heavier object to weigh down the leaves and keep them in place. Years ago a friend of mine went to the beach and found a bunch of well sized flat and heavy rocks that were perfect for this. I still use mine every time even though I have the 'proper' heavy plate from Syria. Get creative with what you can use, you are looking for anything that will prevent the wrapped leaves from floating around the liquid and opening up as they cook.
-Cover your SLOWCOOKER and cook the grape leaves on high heat for 8 hours. If cooking in a PRESSURE COOKER you will cook on medium heat for about 2 hours after the pot is pressurized. If cooking in a REGULAR STOVE TOP pot you will cook anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 hours on medium heat.
-The grape leaves have finished cooking when their leaf gets tender and the rice is cooked and fluffy on the inside. If your water dries up feel free to add a little more and adjust the lemon/salt content.
-Once tender and cooked through, uncover your pot and carefully tilt over a shatter-proof bowl to drain the liquid.
-Once the liquid is drained place a large platter over your pot (use something that sits flat on top of the pot) and quickly flip the pot over so the contents come onto the plate. Wait a moment to make sure everything has come off from the inside of the pot and remove your pot, taking care for the steam that will emerge as you do so.
-Serve with the extra liquid on the side, yogurt and warm pita bread.
-ENJOY! You deserve it after your hard efforts!


Step 1: Prepare the filling. The color of the rice when washed with WARM water and mixed with safflower (before meat and other spices are mixed in)

Step 2: Lay out your grape leaves and arrange the filling

Place the filling in the center

Step 3: Fold the edges of the grape leaf up from the bottom

Step 4: Fold the edges of the grape leaf in from the left and the right

Step 5: Start rolling the grape leaf upwards, away from you

Step 6: The finished product, with all the filling tucked tightly into the grape leaf

Step 7: Sear the steaks until you get a nice color

Step 8: Layer the steaks in your pot and add the optional fillings (these are artichoke bottoms)

Step 9: Layer the grape leaves, making sure to pack them tightly to each other and sprinkle the garlic around

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Oat Cookies

Oatmeal cookies are often deceptively high in fat, because oats tend to yield a dry and unappetizing lump of dough. Swapping out the butter for peanut (or any other nut) butter makes these soft, moist and chewy. These cookies are perfect when you want a peanut butter cookie that tilts to the healthy side. I LOVE that NO CHILLING is required since there is no flour! The oats give them a nice chewy texture and the slight amount of cinnamon is delicious with the peanut butter and chocolate chips. Use the best chocolate you have access to. I typically use Guittard chocolate chips or I chop up some creamy milk chocolate from the 1 pound sized bar found at Trader Joe's.

Get creative and add your own touch: dried fruit, m&m's, nuts...the flavor combinations are endless. I'm providing a base recipe that is easily adaptable, but I recommend staying within the measurements given.

Get yourself a cold cup of milk and get ready for a healthy and sweet treat! You're one bowl, a couple ingredients and 30 minutes away from something delicious ;)

Makes 20 cookies

-2 eggs
-3/4 cup creamy peanut butter, if using salted pb skip the salt addition below
-2/3 cup brown sugar
-1 tablespoon vanilla
-1 teaspoon baking soda
-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
-pinch of salt
-2 cups rolled oats
-1 cup chocolate chips (this is a generous amount, you can use 1/4 cup less)
-1/2 cup shredded coconut
-2 tablespoons flax or chia seeds (optional)

To make
-Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
-With a spatula or in a mixer, stir together eggs, peanut butter, brown sugar and vanilla until smooth.
-Add baking soda, cinnamon and rolled oats and mix until well incorporated.
-Stir in chocolate chips, coconut and flax/chia seeds.
-Place rounded tablespoons onto a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes until the tops look a little dry but the cookie remains soft. Remove from the oven and let cool.
-Store leftover cookies well sealed at room temperature for up to 1 week.

I'd love to connect with you! Like SavvyChef on facebook and follow Savvy_Chef on instagram. Tag @SavvyChef in your creations  :)

Try these other healthy sweets!

Banana Oat Muffins

Raspberry Oat Bars