Our October 2010 hostess, Lori of Lori's Lipsmacking Goodness, has challenged the Daring Cooks to stuff grape leaves. Lori chose a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo and a recipe from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
I have stuffed cabbage leaves and they were excellent, if I do say so myself. However, they were also labor-intensive and, as I recall, took most of the day to make. Between blanching and prepping the cabbage, making the filling, making the tomato sauce and cooking them, it was a considerable effort. Bob really like them, so maybe I'll do them again some day.
This project was considerably easier and faster. In the first place, grape leaves come in jars, pretty much read to use. The toughest part of the grape leave preparation was getting them out of the jar! They are rolled up and really packed in. I used one "roll" of leaves, soaking them in boiling water first and then again in cold water, to remove the brine in which they are packed. Then it is just a matter of unrolling them carefully and separating them. There are different sizes, but that doesn't really seem to matter. The larger leaves are a bit easier to stuff, but even the smaller leaves work fine.
The choice of stuffing was up to us, other than using rice. The short grain rice is soaked in water for 30 minutes to soften it slightly and then mixed with the other ingredients - in my case, sausage, mushrooms, pistachios and Vermont cheddar. The leaves are rolled around a couple teaspoons of filling and placed in an oiled saucepan. They are then covered 3/4 of the way with a mixture of lemon juice, salt and water, weighted down in the pan, which is covered, and braised for an hour in the oven. I also stuffed extra mushrooms in amongst the grape leaves and actually wish I had used more - they were really good!
This is how they looked in the pan. Not exactly things of beauty, but definitely grape-y.
After I cooked them, I took them out to test them. The filling was quite good, but the grape leaves were a mixed bag. Some parts were tender but they were really salty. I think the soaking process didn't remove all the salt or perhaps the salt content in the sausage combined with the additional salt in the cooking liquid was just a bit too much. If I were to do this again, I'd leave out the cooking liquid salt and just use the water and lemon juice.
Bob got some of these in his lunch the next day after they had been refrigerated overnight. Very portable!
If I were to do them again, I think I'd try some fruit variation - maybe dried figs with pine nuts or pistachios, spiced with cinnamon or allspice. I think this is the kind of challenge for which it is fun to dream up different stuffings, paying less attention to the traditional fillings and trying things that sound appealing to you. The best part of Daring Cooks is the freedom to be creative, not just follow the recipe as written, but use it as a starting point for doing something you think sounds good. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is all educational!