Warak Dawali: Stuffed Vine Leaf Rolls
I know that I’ve started to saturate this site with Lebanese food posts lately, like this one. Or this one. Or any one of these. However, I think that it lends credence to my (constant and ongoing) argument with Mike that I DON’T just make curries, daal, tikkas and masalas every day. Every second day, maybe. But what’s a person to do when there is so much flavor in the world, just waiting to be had? Anyway, this is the food that I grew up with (the Lebanese, that is, not the Chaat Masalas) and watching my father in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon taught me a lot of what I know about cooking today.
For some reason, I tend to play and experiment more in the spring, summer and fall. By the time that winter hits, I just want familiarity and food that I know, trust and adore. Maybe it’s the weather that’s been making me emotional lately. These dog days of winter are dreary and I’m starting to wonder if the cold will ever end. And then I remind myself that it’s only February – we still have the frenetic snowstorms of March to get through before the crocuses can rear their regal heads. Our days are short, thick and dark. Medicine cabinets the country over are running out of Advil. The parking lots are three inches deep with an insidious brown slush that manages to penetrate even the most waterproof of boots – none of which I wear, of course, because that would be the sensible thing to do and I’m still in some kind of rebellious winter denial. Sigh. And so I turn to cooking for comfort.
In terms of ‘comfort food’, Warak Dawali bridges the gap for me between familiarity and petty addiction. This is the the kind of glorified finger food where every time that I make it, there seems to be an unspoken challenge of, “How much CAN this girl eat?!” I’ll polish off a full plate…and then go back for another. And then graze on just a few more as I’m packing them up. And then, okay, just one more – just one – and we can call it a day. I know no portion control when it comes to grape rolls.
Ah, yes, ‘grape rolls’. This is how my family referred to them, but to be more specific they are grapevine leaves which are often stuffed with rice and meat. The filling can vary, and there are a number of fabulous vegetarian/vegan fillings with a combination of burghul, lentils, legumes, or rice. Even the classic and simple rice and meat filling is different depending on which home cook is preparing the rolls. My Lebanese Aunties, who all happen to be remarkable cooks (I’m not biased, it’s God’s honest truth, those women are really something else) tend to make their stuffing with an incredibly basic combination of ground beef, rice, allspice and salt. That’s it. Sometimes a bit of tomato paste is added for acidity, or a pat of melted butter gets mixed in with the rice. But…that’s it.
When I make grape rolls they’re slightly different, because I tend to incorporate trends from many different Middle Eastern countries. For example, an Iranian friend of mine will bypass the tomato paste and instead use a bit of pomegranate molasses – sometimes I do as well. Stuffed vine leaves are prevalent from Turkey to Sudan, and Iran to Morocco. Every nation in this area has their own spin on the roll, and each home cook adapts it just a little bit more. Will the herbs be cinnamon and allspice, or mint and dill? Vegetarian or filled with beef and lamb? Raisins, onions, or lemons – oh my! The variations are endless, which I love because it means that no matter how you season these rolls to fit your own personal taste, you know that the savory combinations have been tried and proven true by generations of others.
Now, I understand if the thought of eating leaves fills you with a blend of horror and trepidation. I get that. If you’ve never had stuffed grapevine leaves before then it can be a difficult adjustment. I had an ex-roommate (that hated me) and in the 3+ years that we lived together (don’t ask. Sometimes it’s just easier that way) she refused to ever try them because the thought of eating a vine leaf was ridiculous to her. What’s funny though, is that every time she would arrive home and I had a pot of grape rolls simmering away on the stove, she would start enthusiastically sniffing the air and asking where the delightful food-smells were coming from. I would tell her that they were stuffed vine leaf rolls and eagerly offer that if she wanted to try — but by then her crinkled nose and revolted grimace would usually indicate that no, she did NOT in fact want to try them after all. I tried explaining to her one time that it since she loved cabbage rolls (“well, yes, I DO really love cabbage rolls”) which were just meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves, that these were really similar just with a different leaf (“but…but those are cabbage, which is edible. Not random leaves, which could be POISON”) that maybe she would like them (“NO. THANKS.”). Meh, more for me, I say.
One final note (I promise!): stuffed vine leaf rolls are easy-peasy to make. Really. There’s no magic, there’s no hardship, and there’s very little room for error. The caveat to that is, of course, that they take some time. If you have a little bit of patience though and an hour free on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll be well rewarded.
Warak Dawali: Stuffed Vine Leaf Rolls
Serves 8 as an entree, 12 as an appetizer
- 3 cups long grain rice
- 2 lbs lean ground beef *
- 1/2 very finely mince yellow onion
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1.5 tsp pomegranate molasses**
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp allspice
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1.5 tbsp dried mint
- small bunch parsley (1/2 cup finely minced)
- 2 lemons
- 750 ml/450g/16 oz jar of brined grapevine leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
* You can use just beef or 1 lb each of beef and lamb and if you prefer.
** If you do not have pomegranate molasses, feel free to use an extra tbsp of tomato paste instead.
Vine leaves that are held in brine can sometimes be quite salty. Unless you’re using frozen vine leaves, you will likely want to soak them in cold water for a half hour of so to remove some of the salt.
If you live close to a vineyard (or just happen to have access to vine leaves – that HAVEN’T been sprayed with pesticides) and your vine leaves are fresh, you want to prep the leaves by blanching them for 5-10 seconds in boiling water before removing the leaves to an ice bath. Oh, and then remember to add more salt to the stuffing. It’s all about balance, right?!
Rinse the rice 4-5 times in several changes of cold water, or until the water runs clear.
Add the extra lean ground beef (or a combination of beef and lamb) to the rice.
Chop the onions up as finely as you can. If you’re nervous about your knife skills and maybe finely chopping isn’t really your forte, not to worry – a box grater will make short work of those onions and save you the emotional trauma of awkward cuts. Grated onion will incorporate easily with the other ingredients, and it’s actually preferred by some….well, of the people that put onion in their Warak Dawali.
Crinkle the dried mint on top, add the other spices, tomato paste and pomegranate molasses (or just tomato paste) and season it taste with salt and pepper. As we said before though, if you buy brined vine leaves they tend to be quite salty to begin with. so you may want to check how salty your leaves are (after you soak them) before seasoning the stuffing mixture. Yes, they’re edible. Don’t be shy. Find a broken, torn or small leaf and take a little nibble. If they’re bland, add more salt to the mixture. If they’re acidic and briny, well, don’t.
Chop the parsley as finely as you can.
Add the parsley to the meat and rice, kneading it until everything is combined.
Now then, let’s prep our pot! When you start layering the rolls into your pot (your BIG pot, mind you. Find a big pot.) it’s important that they’re not sitting right on the bottom or those ones may burn/overcook. There are many ways of solving this problem . If you have a metal steamer shelf with feet (the bendy kind that folds up or flutes out) that’s perfect, because it will sit at 1/2 inch higher than the base and allow the water to circulate. If you don’t, that’s okay too. Do you have a round wire cooling rack which would fit? Be creative! The first time that I ever made Warak Dawali I put an inverted plate on the bottom of my pot and stacked it on ‘feet’ made from lemon wedges. And let me tell you, there was no shame in that AND they were delicious. It’s all about making do with what you have.
Cover your metal insert/rack/plate/whatever with a layer of vine leaves. This will serve as another protection for the rolls which will sit on top. The best leaves to use for this are the ugliest ones. You may see a few cut or torn leaves immediately, hiding in your stack of brined leaves. Take those out, but don’t dispose of them. They’re perfect for layering on the bottom AND the top of the pot.
To assemble the rolls, place one leaf seam/vein side up on your work surface. Pull off a small amount of filling (about 2 tsp) and press it into a sausage shape along the centre of your leaf.
Just like you were making a burrito you fold the bottom side up first, press the left and right sides in to the center, and then roll it up to the top.
Like most things in Middle Eastern culture, there is value associated with the size of your finished product. The smaller the roll, the more respect you are showing to your guests – as well as competency as a cook. The vine leaf rolls that my aunts make are the length and width of a thin cigarello. Mine aren’t. Now remember, even if you start to feel a sense of pride and “Oh look! My rolls, so thin and delicate. Aren’t they just precious?” You’re using uncooked rice. It will expand. An hour of cooking and your delicate little roll will look like Madame Curie’s bastard son.
For that reason, although I try, I aim for rolls that are halfway between, “Top of the morning to you, kind and venerable sir. May I take this graciously granted opportunity to bid you a wonderful greeting to the day, whereby the larks shall sing sweetly in your praise and the sun will shine like honey upon your virile visage?” and “What? You want some firkin’ dinner? And I suppose your HANDS ARE BROKEN or you would have made it yourself, you smarmy sorry excuse for a houseguest…..”
I don’t make tiny vine leaf rolls of EXAMPLE, per se. They’re a bit bigger than most and slightly ungainly, but they do the trick and fill they tummy.
Place the rolls into your pot in one straight layer on the bottom. As you go up, alternate direction so that the rolls are perpendicular to the flat before them. I’m sure that this somehow contributes to ease of cooking, even temperature, and whatnot, but I see a big advantage when you’re lifting them out after they’re cooked. So just go with it.
I am about as far from perfect as Satan is from the sun, but this ratio of meat to leaves (with my stuffing level remaining mostly constant) means that at the end I usually have about 8-15 leaves left over which I can use to cover the top. However, maybe you filled the leaves really full and you ran out of stuffing first! Or maybe you were quite generous and determined to show your friends and family that you cared, so you ran out of leaves making your tiny wee little rolls? That’s okay. There is benefit to both.
Extra stuffing: can be stuffed into tomatoes, peppers (with some liquid) and then baked, used to make ‘porcupine balls’, rounded off and poached in soup, etc.
Extra leaves: can be wrapped around fish which you’ll steam, halloumi or mozzarella which you’ll grill, or chicken which you can even panfry if you like.
Anyway, make sure that you reserve at least 8 vine leaves (broken and torn ones are fine) for the end. Layer them on top of the filled rolls. Finely slice the lemons and put the slices on top of the vine leaves.
Finally, pour water into your pot until it just reaches the top layer. All of the rolls should be covered in water, but there should not be so much water that they’re submerged.
This may look funny, but just go with it. If you have a plate which can JUST fit inside your pot, place it on top to weigh down the rolls and keep them stationary. The plate should be with the bowl-side down so that it presses gently down on the center of the rolls.
Put the pot on medium high heat until it comes to a sputtering, simmering boil. Then put a lid on the pot, turn the heat down very low, and let the rolls simmer away (covered) for at least an hour or until all of the water seems to be absorbed.
Stuffed vine leaf rolls can be served hot or at room temperature. They’re best when eaten hot as an entree or room temperature as an appetizer.
When we used to eat these for dinner, the hot grape rolls would be topped with a mound of tangy home made yoghurt, a sprinkling of dried mint, and a squeeze of lemon. These days, I like them with yoghurt, lemon, olive oil, mint, sumac, grainy salt, or just about any way that they come.
Beautiful? No. But you’ve already heard my rants on why food doesn’t have to be beautiful in order to taste great.
Sah’tang, to all. And remember: if the thought of vine leaves kind of eekes you out a little bit, just close your eyes. Pretend that they’re mini-tiny cabbage rolls made by incognito forest elves. Everything will be okay.
The vine leaf rolls also freeze really well for a few months. To reheat them, sprinkle the rolls with a little bit of water so that they don’t dry out and microwave in a covered container on high until they’re cooked through and steamy.