Brown Rice and Lentil Vine Leaf Rolls
I went “Cabinet Cooking” again. I know that I make it sound like dumpster diving, and I really shouldn’t because it always ends up beings healthy food that just doesn’t require a quick trip to the grocery store. The hermetic avoidance of fresh air was probably key, come to think of it, because you know what I don’t feel like doing when I’m flu-ish and cranky with matted hair and a face which would stop Medusa dead in her tracks? I don’t feel like going to the grocery store in the town where I know 10% of the population by name. Sure, Mike makes fun of my very well stocked pantry (it is possible that he has a point, and there’s no need for me to hoard 16 cans of coconut milk at any given time) but every now and again being a pack rat comes in handy.
These brown rice and lentil stuffed rolls are a healthy, low fat vegan riff on the Middle Eastern meat and rice stuffed vine leaf rolls that I adore. They’re quite similar to Greek dolmades with the main exceptions that they don’t get packed in (or drizzled with) oil after they’re cooked and the seasoning takes a bit of a left turn. The joy of stuffed vine leaf rolls is that you can flavor them with whatever herbs and spices float your boat (from cinnamon to dill and everything in between), sweeten them with currants or raisins, make them meaty with lamb, beef or even ground turkey (delightful), and pretty much just play around. You want to add a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses? Be my guest. You think that cumin is the bees-knees? Go crazy. The rolls are versatile, which is one of the reasons that you’ll find very different (but always delicious) versions of stuffed vine leaf rolls from Afghanistan to Morocco, and everywhere in between.
I tend to post a lot of Lebanese food on this site, and my beef and rice filled Warak Dawali recipe is, for Mike and I, one of our shared favorites. Despite the fact that the recipe makes a metric tonne we always manage to finish it off in a matter of days….just the two of us……happily. And then I go and make it with LENTILS. Huh.
I’m always a bit leery of feeding my carnivorous fiancé vegan foods which are masquerading as his favorite meat-filled fare, not because he won’t eat or enjoy it (he will), but because he gets that freshly clubbed baby seal look on his face. He might as well have been keening, plaintively, “Whhhyyyyy, Tina? Whhhhyyyyy do you trick me like this?? I thought you loooooooooved me!! Oooohhhhooooohhhh…..” Then I have to go through the motions of soothing his ruffled pelt, promising him red meat within the next two days, and before you know it the emotional investment of convincing him his dinner isn’t poison takes a far greater toll on me than any health benefits from one meal of rice and beans. Good thing that I don’t give up easily.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention The Comment. I brought a freshly cooked role to Mike in one of those just-eat-it kind of ways, and thinking that it was the meat filled roll that he loved he ate it without question. And then I heard: “Hey! Oh, huh. *munchmunch* That’s lentil. That’s not meat, it’s LENTIL. But….these are *snarfchewgulp* really good. I mean, really good. I like them as much as your other ones! You could…you could even GIVE SOME TO YOUR DAD!” Now that’s just crazy talk, of course (don’t worry Dad, you’re still safe from my vegan fare…for now) but I’ll take it.
One final note if you’re still debating the pros and cons of a leaf stuffed with rice and lentils, because I know that the title doesn’t exactly bring upon mass salivation. And, okay, they’re “rustic”, which is a nice way of saying a little bit homely. Here’s the balance though: not only are these delicious little rolled emerald cigars a meal that leaves you feeling virtuous rather than having the meat sweats, but they’re dead cheap to make. For all of the ingredients combined this meal would have cost just over $8 CAD, which comes out to less than $2 per serving. So…that’s pretty awesome. Us po’ folks like our depression style cookery, you know. When lentils and rice can be gussied up with a bit of Middle Eastern flair, I’d happily call that dinner. And lunch. And hopefully leftovers for a midnight snack.
Brown Rice and Lentil Vine Leaf Rolls
- 1.5 cups uncooked short grain brown rice
- 1.5 cups dried green or brown lentils *
- 2 tbsp dried mint
- 1.5 tbsp dried dill
- 1.5 red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 4 large cloves garlic
- 1 medium red onion
- 300 g (just over 1/2 lb) grape vine leaves **
- 1 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
- Plain yoghurt
- crumbled dried mint (optional)
- sprinkling of za’atar (optional)
- fresh lemon wedges (optional)
Pour the lentils into a medium to large bowl and pick through them for any stones or bits of detritus. Add the brown rice, spices, and season with salt and pepper. Admittedly, it can be hard to season the filling mixture right now because you don’t know how briny your leaves are going to be. If the leaves are really salty they’ll transfer that into the stuffing and your wee roles could be a bit puckersome. That said, I rinse and drain the leaves several times before using them so about 1 tsp of salt in the filling seems to work just right.
Slice the top off your onion but leave the base intact. Peel away the papery shell and then grate the onion using a box grater.
Scrape the onion and all of it’s juices into your rice and lentil mixture. Mince the garlic until it has an almost paste-like consistency (I use a rasp because I’m far too lazy to do this the long way). Dollop in the tomato paste while you’re at it.
Mix the mixture well until the wet and pasty ingredients are evenly incorporated throughout. The grains and lentils should be moist and you should not be able to see any big lumps or chunks of onion/tomato/garlic or it isn’t mixed in properly. Put an extendable/collapsable footed strainer (I have no idea what the technical term is for this contraption, only that I bought mine at the dollar store…) on the bottom of the pot. This will create an elevated surface so the rolls on the bottom don’t burn.
Take a peek through a handful of your vine leaves and pull out the ones which look particularly small or damaged. Use these to layer on top of the strainer and form a base.
Now then, on to the rolls! If your vine leaves have been packed in brine, rinse them thoroughly under cold running water or soak them for a half hour with at least two changes of water. You want to get rid of the excessive salt. As you go along, take out any vine leaves which are damaged or torn and leave these aside for the top.
Lay one vine leaf flat on your work surface with the vein side up. Spoon a small amount (about 1-2 tsp) of filling in a log shape along the lower center of the leaf. Bring the bottom of the leaf up to enclose the filling and tuck in the left and right sides. Continue rolling the bundle up like you would a tortilla wrap.
When you roll be careful not to do it too tight because the rice and lentils will both expand. However, you also don’t want the rolls to be too lose or they’ll fall apart. I’m making this far more complicated than it needs to be. Just roll the leaves up around the filling ‘comfortably’ and you’ll be fine.
Snuggle the vine leaf rolls into your pot. When you have completed one full layer, change direction so that the second layer is perpendicular. You should have enough filling to make 2-3 complete layers. Lay the rest of your discarded/damaged leaves on top of the finished rolls.
Slice the lemon as thinly as you can and lay the slices evenly around as the very top layer.
Fill the pot up with water until the water level is a full inch above the top layer of vine leaf rolls (or 3/4″ above the lemons).
Put the pot on an element over high heat and wait for the water to come to a boil. As soon as it does you can secure the pot with a tight fitting lid and turn the heat down very low. The rolls are going to steam away (whatever you do, don’t lift the lid!!) for at least 1 hour and up to 90 minutes. After 1 hour you can check on the rolls. Peel the top layer of grape leaves aside and taste one of the rolls from the top. If the rice and lentils are still chewy or firm put the lid back on and let them continue cooking. If you’re going to let the rolls cook longer it’s important to remember that they need liquid if they’re going to steam. If you tilt the pot and don’t see any water, add another cup or two before you put the lid back on and let them continue steaming.
The rolls are done when the rice and lentils are both hydrated and tender.
Although the meat filled warak dawali are often served warm or at room temperature, I think that the vegan version fares much better when they’re hot. You can serve the lovely green cigars with a yoghurt to dollop overtop, a sprinkling of fresh mint or za’atar, or even just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Making the rolls can be a tedious process at best, and I do find it a bit daunting that something which took me 45 minutes to assemble can be snarfed down in 10 minutes flat. However, as far as nutritious deliciousness goes, these nutrient packed and fiber-rich vegan rolls make me happy enough that I always forget about the tedium until I’m halfway through preparing the next batch.
So….grape leaves and yoghurt. They’re what’s for dinner.