Perhaps it’s been my recent foray into the exploration of all things kitschtastic, perhaps it’s because it’s been chilly and I wanted to turn on my oven, perhaps it’s because of the relative (supposed) ease of cooking and serving everything in one dish, but I wanted a casserole.
For the record, grape leaves are never easy. More on that later. Moving on.
The word “casserole” is from the French; it means “saucepan” which indicates some kind of giant mutation of meaning because you cook casseroles in a baking dish in the oven, and saucepans, for the most part, stay on the stove. Unless you’re making a pork loin that you browned on the stove top and want to finish in the oven, so you move the whole thing, pan and all, into said oven. If that’s the case, then for the love of all that is holy PLEASE remember that you just had your primarily topside pan in the depths of a flaming hot oven, and when you go to make some pan gravy, the handle? Will be hot. I still have some ointment, so if you forget, call me.
Anyway. Hungry. Bored. Trolling websites for recipes. And I came across the recipe for a stuffed grape leaf casserole. Brown rice, pistachios, currants, and the titular grape leaf. What’s not to want? I mean, I love stuffed grape leaves (a/k/a dolmades), which are not difficult to make but they are time-consuming, and it’s constant work as you have to roll each individual leaf. This recipe–ain’t gonna lie–still takes a while, but it’s a while of kind of letting things cook on their own and walking away, so you’re not laboriously tied to the stove. And it’s all the stuff in a stuffed grape leaf, without having to do any stuffing! Here we go:
Aside from shelling the pistachios, you also need to get your rice going. Brown rice takes twice as long to cook as white rice–it’s brown because it hasn’t had the bran covering polished off, which is heartier than the rice itself and requires more exposure to boiling water to make it edible. Of course, the bran is what packs the nutritional wallop, boosting the fiber to three times the amount of white rice, and who doesn’t need fiber? Nonsense, we all do. Anyway. I’m sure you know what cooking rice is about, and what it looks like. Sorry if you really wanted a picture. Moving on.
So, grape leaves. Rumor has it you can get them fresh. If you’re Michael Chiarello and can pick them from your organic grape arbor, then maybe you can get them fresh. Most of us will have to settle for ones that are brined and sitting in a jar (and yes, local peeps, you can get them at the Weis). I don’t know why the recipe doesn’t tell you to do this, but the first thing you should do with grape leaves is cut off their stems. Some commercial brands will have the stems removed, but clearly, not all of them will. So when you see a grape leaf that looks like this:
Realize that it’s your duty to get rid of Nature’s toothpick, and just lop off that little twiggy bit.
Even if they’re brined and relatively soft, a good par-boiling isn’t a bad idea, as grape leaves are fairly substantial things with some chew and, because of the brining, can (not surprisingly) be salty. Par-boiling will help manage all that; they’ll become pliant, some of the salt will be removed. So take your pile of de-stemmed leaves
And throw them into some boiling water for two minutes. Nothing fancy, just toss ’em in. And then drain them, and run some cool water over them as an ersatz shocking. Cools them down, stops the cooking process. Because you know when you drain them they’re still hot, right, and still “cooking”, even if they’ve been removed from an external heat source. Because they’re so hot they’re their own heat source. You get it, right? So if you just drained them and let them sit their in their heatedness they’d keep cooking and cooking and mushing out, and who needs mushy grape leaves? Not this girl. Just cool them off. And then dry them. And then! Get a two-quart baking dish and start lining it with your leaves.
Mix your rice + parsley + whatever other herbs you decide to use (I didn’t have mint, so I went with lemon thyme & rosemary) + pistachios + currants + tomato juice (or thinned out tomato sauce, also what I used). Pour half on top of your initial layer of grape leaves, and then add another layer of leaves so it’s sort of like a grape leaf lasagna. Put in the other half of the ricey goodness and it will look something like this.
Top this with one more layer of grape leaves, tuck in the edges so it’s all pretty-like, and then paint on a bit of olive oil to finish.
And then, 30 or 40 minutes later…
Though seriously, Pyrex people…call me.
Behold the stuffed grape leaf casserole. Serve it with a dollop of yogurt and some pomegranate molasses for a real treat. The molasses has a sweet & sour quality to it that brings out the floral elements of the thyme and currants, so it’s rich and creamy and biting and light and fresh, all at the same time. Drizzle some of the juice from one of those lemon slices on top of the yogurt and molasses and you’re home free.
Dig my righteous Fire King, Primrose pattern.
With all the objectivity I can muster I tell you now…this was awesome.