In Ancient Israel, the fall harvest was still being gathered as preparations for Rosh Hashanah were under way. One of the most important crops was the grape vine. Our modern festive Rosh Hashanah meal is the perfect opportunity to showcase an often-overlooked part of this member of the Seven Species, its leaves. There is an old Sephardic tradition of serving stuffed vegetables for Rosh Hashanah. These cornucopiae connote a year filled with blessings and abundance. This year, recall Ancient Israel’s fall harvest, and imbue your dishes with symbolism, by preparing various delicacies encased in grape leaves.
Wild grapes were first domesticated in Central Asia. The fruit was eaten fresh off the vine. Grapes were pressed to make juice. Naturally occurring yeasts on the skins of the grapes converted some of this juice into an alcoholic beverage. The discovery of the art of wine making quickly followed, flourishing in Greece, Phoenicia, and Ancient Rome. Wine that sat for a long time was transformed into vinegar. After the grapes were pressed for wine, the skins and seeds remained. Grape seed oil was extracted from these grape seeds. Grapes that were not eaten fresh or turned into wine were dried in the sun, becoming raisins. Even the grapes that did not have time to ripen were not wasted. A very acidic juice was squeezed out of them and stored. This juice was called verjuice. Verjuice added a sour note to any dish it was incorporated into. Grape leaves were discovered to be edible, and became very popular in Near Eastern and Balkan cuisine.
Stuffed grape leaves are said to have originated during the reign of Alexander the Great. When Thebes was under siege by the troops of Alexander, the city was running out of food. The Thebans were very creative in adding nutrition to their diets. They cut up what little meat they had and rolled it up in the grape leaves growing all around them. This was a very good idea since grape leaves are very salubrious. They are high in vitamin A and vitamin K, and contain calcium, iron, and vitamin C. The Byzantines continued this tradition, stuffing leaves from fig, mulberry, and hazelnut tress, in addition to grape leaves.
Grape leaves need a little preparation for cooking. If you are using fresh grape leaves, make sure that they have not been sprayed with insecticides. Pick light green, medium sized, tender leaves. Wash them with cold water. Cut off the stems. Place the leaves in a clean pan, and cover with boiling water. Let blanch for about five minutes. You may begin by preparing one of the most traditional dishes in Greek cuisine: Dolmathakia. Dolmathakia are grape leaves wrapped around a variety of fillings such as rice, fresh herbs, cheese, and pine nuts. A tutorial of how to stuff a grape leaf is available at this link.
Dolmathakia (Stuffed Grape Leaves) With Goat Cheese And Couscous
Adapted from Nancy Gaifyllia
35 blanched or jarred grape leaves
35 1-inch pieces of goat cheese
¼ cup of couscous
¼ cup of boiling water
2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
Place the couscous in a bowl. Add one teaspoon of ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and ¼ cup of boiling water to it. Wait about five minutes for the couscous to soften. Chop up the tomato and add to the couscous. Add the cilantro, one tablespoon of olive oil, and the juice of one lemon. Mix well.
To assemble the Dolmathakia:
Put a grape leaf on a plate. Place one teaspoon of couscous and one piece of cheese on the leaf. Roll the leaf shut, sealing it with olive oil.
You may coat the dolmathakia with olive oil and grill over coals, or sauté in olive oil.
Yaprakes de Parra are vegetarian stuffed grape leaves beloved by Sephardic Jews. Traditionally, they are assembled in advance for Shabbat, and served cold. Here is a pareve recipe.
Yaprakes De Parra, Stuffed Grape Leaves
Adapted from Joyce Goldstein’s Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean
35 grape leaves, blanched or jarred in brine
1 cup white rice
3 garlic cloves
¼ cup dry currants
¼ cup pine nuts
Fresh fennel leaves
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. Cut up two onions and 3 cloves of garlic. Add them to the olive oil and stir over medium heat, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the rice. Dice the tomato and place it in the mix. Mince the fennel, mint, and cilantro leaves. Add them to the pan. Toss in the pine nuts and currants. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Place a grape leaf on a clean plate, fill a teaspoon with some filling, and deposit it on the leaf. Roll up the grape leaf around the filling, and arrange in a clean pan.
When all the leaves have been rolled up in this fashion, you may add about one tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Squeeze the lemons into the pan as well. Cover the stuffed grape leaves with water, and place a plate over them to help them keep their shape while cooking. Cover the grape leaves with water, put a lid on the pot, and bring everything to a boil. Lower the heat, and allow the stuffed grape leaves to simmer for about 40 minutes.
Remove the lid and plate from the pot. Allow the stuffed grape leaves to cool down to room temperature. Place in an airtight container, and refrigerate. To serve, arrange the stuffed grape leaves on a platter. Garnish with fresh lemon slices.
In his book Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Dishes from London’s Ottolehngi, Chef Yotam Ottolenghi brings one of the most creative grape leaf dishes to life from the cuisine of Turkey. Here is a gluten-free version.
Grape Leaf, Labaneh, and Herb Pie
35 fresh or jarred grape leaves
¼ cup pine nuts
Labaneh or Greek yogurt
½ cup rice flour
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dice the shallots, and sauté them in olive oil until they turn a golden brown. Set aside.
Take a deep baking dish (preferably porcelain) and cover its interior with grape leaves. Brush the grape leaves with olive oil.
In a bowl, mix the sautéed shallots with the labaneh and pine nuts. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Finely mince the mint, dill, cilantro, and tarragon. Add to the yogurt mixture.
Grate the skin of one lemon, and throw the zest into the mixture. Then squeeze the juice from this lemon into the pie filling as well.
Pour the rice flour into the yogurt and mix it well to form a paste.
Spread the paste over the grape leaves in the porcelain baking dish. Cover the filling with more grape leaves, and brush them with olive oil.
Bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven, and allow to cool to room temperature. Serve with fresh labaneh.
It is traditional to serve a whole fish during Rosh Hashanah, so we may go into the year “with the head, and not with the tail.” Here is a recipe adapted from Vilma Liacouras Chatiles from her book The Food of Greece.
Whole Fish Baked In Grapevine Leaves
35 fresh or jarred grape leaves
Whole fish, such as flounder or red snapper, with the head intact, cleaned by the fishmonger
One can of anchovy fillets
Wash the fish, then pat dry with paper towels.
In a glass bowl, mix a marinade of 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tablespoon each of finely minced fresh cilantro, fennel, and thyme. Squeeze the juice of one lemon and add to the mixture. Stir well and add the fish. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for two hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Take a deep porcelain baking dish.
Mash the canned anchovies.
Cover the baking dish with grape leaves.
Place the marinated fish on the grape leaves.
Spread some anchovy paste on the fish.
Wrap the fish with the grape leaves.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Garnish with lemon slices and fennel leaves.
Stuffed grape leaves can be substantial enough to be served for the main course. Below is a recipe from Lebanon that may be prepared with either beef or lamb.
Warak Einab, Stuffed Grape Leaves From Lebanon
Adapted from Saad Fayed
35 grape leaves
2 Lbs. ground beef or lamb
2 cups white rice
3 cups diced tomatoes
½ cup minced cilantro
In a bowl, mix the beef or lamb, rice, tomatoes, and cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste, and squeeze in the juice of one lemon.
Stuff the grape leaves, and arrange them in the bottom of a pot. Cover the stuffed grape leaves with a heavy porcelain plate. Add water to the pot, covering the grape leaves. Bring the pot to a boil, and then simmer for 30 minutes.
Serve hot, with salad and rice.
Preparing a Rosh Hashanah feast from the bounties of the fall harvest is a way to be thankful for the generosity of the earth. It is an opportunity to represent your good wishes for your family and guests in the foods you prepare. The leaves of the grape liana provide the perfect medium to do this. Grape leaves can be transformed into symbolic packets of good wishes for the New Year. May we exhibit the toughness and resiliency of the grape liana, and thrive in environments as poor as the soil it grows in. May we be blessed with its longevity. May we extract as much life and utility out of our year as we do of our grapevines. Shana tova!
You are invited to join the brainstorm for hands-on Rosh Hashanah ideas at this link.