Stuffed grape leaves with rice, lentils and apricots

Stuffed grape leaves are labor intensive, which is part of their charm. Or something. They’re lovely to eat, but let’s be honest — making (and serving) them is a declaration that you’ve invested a heckuva lot of time in that meal. That’s part of what makes them such a centerpiece for some cultures — what better way to show off to the neighbors and guests? — but it also can make them a bit impractical.

Still, they’re nice to eat and enjoy every once so often, and as with any food, making them gives you the ultimate freedom to determine what goes inside. And there’s no better excuse than springtime, when fresh leaves are just starting to hit the markets. They’re so pretty, sitting there in bright green piles. Much more enticing than the pickled leaves sold year-round (even if the taste is ultimately the same).

Stuffed grape leaves often contain a bit of ground beef mixed in with the rice, so I added lentils to mimic the effect of the meat. The lentils created a slightly unorthodox texture, and you could just use extra rice instead, although the lentils offer nutrition advantages as well — the rice/lentil combo creates whole protein. Next time I’ll probably use caviar lentils, which are smaller than regular lentils.

I was in the mood for thin, delicate grape leaves, shaped more like slender cigarettes than fat dumplings, so I put a small amount of filling into each one — maybe half a tablespoon — and spread it into a thin, four-centimeter line. Obviously, the less you put into each grape leaf, the more leaves you’ll need and the longer it’ll take to stuff them all. It took me about 40 minutes to fill 75 leaves, but you could also make fatter bundles and finish in half the time (and with half the leaves).

For about 75 stuffed grape leaves:

  • 250 grams fresh grape leaves (about 75-80)
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1/2 cup lentils (or you could use another 1/2 cup rice instead)
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • juice of 1.5 lemons, divided (6 tablespoons all told)

Prep time: 50 minutes. Cook time: 90 minutes.

Let your lentils start soaking in advance, if you have the time. Alternately, put them in water as you start preparing the other components.

Rinse the grape leaves and put in a pot to boil for about 10 minutes so that
they soften. If you’re using pickled grape leaves, rinsing them is enough.

Put the onion and oil in a pot, and fry until the onion is translucent. Add the rice, herbs and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and mix until the herbs soften and lose some volume. Add the apricots, spices, lemon zest, and salt. Drain the lentils and add them, too.

Now, fill the grape leaves: Place a leaf vein-side up, with the stem facing you. Remove any stem. Put about half a tablespoon of filling at the base of the leaf, and arrange into a horizontal line. Fold the base end of the leaf over the filling, tuck in the sides and roll into a tube. You can find a picture tutorial on my post on cheese-filled grape leaves.

Repeat with all the leaves and all the stuffing, setting aside 5-10 imperfect leaves to line the bottom of the pot.

Place the leftover leaves in the bottom of the pot, and then densely arrange the stuffed grape leaves in layers. Try to have each layer going in a different direction — if the bundles are arranged horizontally on the bottom layer, they should be arranged vertically on the next layer up. This helps them keep their form as they cook.

Pour the remaining 4 tablespoons of lemon juice into the pot. Place a glass plate firmly on top of the bundled leaves to keep them in place, and top the pot with boiling water that comes up about 1 centimeter past the leaves.

Put on a low flame, bring to a boil and simmer for about 1.5 hours.

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