It was a rainy day, much like today. My youngest son had finally finished college/university. In lieu of attending the actual graduation ceremony, which was to be held in the Meadowlands Arena, my husband and I, his older brother, and the girlfriend went to Senior Thesis Night. This was held at a local Museum of Arts and Sciences and was about six hours long. The audience was quite a show, in and of itself, theatre majors, computer animation and film students, families, and professors. Just looking around at the people, I felt I was part of some impromptu costume party or small town circus. Fringed leather boots and micro-mini skirts, bright blue hair, and tuxedos, Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops, glitter and sequins. The caterer had canceled very last minute, so an enterprising teacher bought huge bags of pre-made popcorn and an assortment of candy and soda. All we needed was a few elephants or dancing bears, a tired one-trick pony or fortune teller. There was an air of excited anticipation. I sat at the end of an aisle, so several latecomers had to either squeeze by our combined long legs, or let us stand up. I stood up as a young man tried to get to the middle of the aisle. My husband also stood; the young man turned to thank us, but as my husband sat down, the pocket knife he carries to clean his pipe, fell right between him and the young man. Only I saw the look of horror, then the young man bolted out of there, as if at some point he might get stabbed in the dark. Looking back, I believe he leaped or flew over us, at least that's how it seemed.
Since my son was receiving an award for Outstanding Achievement in Video Game Animation, we also attended that ceremony a few days later, bringing along my mother, and one of my sisters who unexpectedly came to town. It was at this point I realized what a soap opera my life can be, if I look at it that way. I was determined not to have any confrontations or weird family business; I cannot say the same for my sister. I offered to take our small group out to eat, since there had been no refreshments, the ultimate sin and direct opposite of orientation when there were waiters and waitresses, wine in abundance, tables and tables of extravagant catered food. I didn't realize it then, but I am certain now we paid for that in the form of higher tuition. My son chose an excellent Greek diner, where we basically played change the topic of conversation with my sister, as she tried every which way but loose, to be the center of attention. Everyone ordered something different and everything was delicious. It had been years, probably decades since I'd eaten stuffed grape leaves, so I ordered a plate of them as appetizers for all.
This was the catalyst for making stuffed grape leaves myself. That and my numerous trips through a backyard gate to visit an older woman who lives alone. She has lived in this same neighborhood for almost 70 years, is a veteran of WWII, had nine children, and still works as a nurse at the age of 86, when she is not traveling around the world. If there is a wise woman, it is her, consoling, listening, giving advice as well as spouting my favorite swear word or memorized poetry, all in equal measure. Back when the Presbyterian church was next door with our house being the parsonage, the property was split and the church desanctified. She sent her children out to salvage some of the old iron fence from the front, as well as a small gate. She put the fence and gate at the back of her yard, straddling the new property line, then her very Italian husband, back from the Army in postwar rebuilding efforts, newly appointed as local Police Chief, planted the grape vines.
First, I asked her permission to gather some leaves, then if she had ever made stuffed grape leaves. She had not. We searched her well-worn recipe book to no avail, then she was off to some event. I checked out a few variations online, then proceeded with whatever ingredients were in my house or growing outside. The two things all of the recipes had in common were using grape leaves in a jar and an inaccurate preparation time of one hour. Maybe it takes one hour if you buy the grape leaves and measure all of the ingredients first, however that is not how I cook the majority of the time. And why buy grape leaves when there is an abundant supply a short walk through the rain? That was my thinking when I began. So, without further ado:
Stuffed Grape Leaves
I made the stuffing using leftover cooked brown rice, approximately 4 cups. I sauteed finely chopped onion, garlic, and celery in olive oil. Browned about half pound each: ground turkey and ground beef, drained off fat. Sauteed small cubes of firm tofu, which I seasoned with fresh, chopped oregano, lemon balm, and Bay Ridge mint. I added some feta and parmesan cheese, then mixed everything together. There was way more stuffing than the pile of grape leaves, waiting on the counter. I think I picked about 20, at first.
Use a large pot, half-filled with water. Add salt and lemon juice. Simmer freshly picked and rinsed grape leaves, approximately 3 minutes. The best time to pick them is in May and June (and if you pick them on a rainy day, as I did, you can skip the rinsing part.) Several recipes said to pick leaves 3 or 4 down from the top growth and not to pick fuzzy ones. After following those directions the first picking, I found that bigger is better (in terms of how much stuffing a leaf holds, as well as sturdiness). The basic idea is you blanch the leaves, then ever-so-gently you let them drain, either in a colander or on paper towels. What none of the recipes mentioned was like many greens, the leaves "cook down." As in, I needed to make many more forays back to the grape vine to gather more leaves, in order to use all of the stuffing.
Okay, so this is the fun and frustrating part until you get your rhythm. On lightly oiled pans, place a blanched leaf in front of you, smooth surface down, veins facing up, stem trimmed off, bottom of leaf closest to you. Scoop a few spoonfuls of stuffing onto leaf. Fold the left side of the leaf over, then the right side, similar to a burrito. Next, fold the top of the leaf down, rolling the whole thing towards you, keeping the stuffing from oozing out. I used a toothpick to secure the final product. Repeat until you have used all of the stuffing. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 45 minutes, moistening with a light tomato sauce. I ended up with over 80, which is a lot. I sampled a few, brought some to my neighbor, had my guys test some, then brought the rest to a Memorial Day BBQ, and still had a few leftover to share with friends. I was aiming for very high protein, and the stuffing is key. You may wish to omit meat or cheese or substitute brown rice with something else. I did add an egg about halfway through, just to control the somewhat crumbly stuffing. Apparently, there are recipes for sauces to dip stuffed grape leaves into, however I chose not to spend any more time standing than I already had, dripping wet from running back and forth to gather more leaves in the rain. Preparation time: 5 hours.