Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yalanchi (Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves)

I hate dill.  I despise it.  When my taste buds find a fleck of dill in anything I eat, the alarms in my head go off.  Dill and I are not friends.  There is one dish on this Earth, however, that contains dill, and for some crazy reason, I don't hate it.  In fact, quite the contrary.  I absolutely, against all odds, love it.  This dish is yalanchi, or vegetarian stuffed grape leaves.  In Turkish, yalanchi means "fake."  It refers to the fact that these stuffed grape leaves do not contain meat.  They are, therefore, fake stuffed grape leaves.  If they were filled with meat, they would be called "dolma" (which means "stuffed" in Turkish) and can also refer to meat-stuffed peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, etc.  My parents make dolma with lots of different vegetables.  The word "sarma" means "wrapped" and can be used to refer to both the meat and non-meat filled grape leaves, which are wrapped with grape leaves, hence the term.  Yalanchi are always served cold, while their meat-filled cousins are served hot.  Those are the major differences between the two: meat vs. no meat, and hot vs. cold.

My aunt has grape vines in her yard, so every summer my family picks fresh grape leaves, trims the stems, lines them up, wraps them in bundles with string, and blanches them in boiling water.  They then cool and freeze the grape leaf bundles until needed.  Preserved grape leaves are now readily available in jars at Middle Eastern grocery stores and other specialty stores, such as Restaurant Depot.  Although making stuffed grape leaves can be a tedious process, in this case I really think it's worth the effort.  Although I'm a proud meat-eater, I can honestly say that I prefer these vegetarian yalanchi to dolma made with meat.  They are great mezze year round and will be gracing our Christmas table this year (we doubled the recipe!).  There are different ways to make yalanchi (some people add pine nuts or dried currants), but my mom makes it the best.  I know everyone thinks their mom makes it the best (whatever it may be), but I'm telling the truth :)  This yalanchi is so good!  I want to inject it directly into my veins, haha.  You can't eat just one, or five... start with ten and then you'll be off to a good start!

On another note, every year at Christmastime my family makes baklava.  It's a tradition.  I don't think I've met a single person (except those allergic to nuts) that doesn't appreciate a good baklava.  Since I have many new readers to my blog this year, who probably never saw these recipes last year, I wanted to just share the link for you all.  Last year I shared 3 variations of baklava, 2 using filo dough and nuts, and 1 using shredded filo (kadayef) and ricotta cheese.  These are all SOOO good, and I hope you will keep these recipes in mind if you ever want to make these sweet treasures yourself (it's not too late to make them for Christmas this year, either)!  We make them annually, and give away dishes of baklava instead of the traditional Christmas cookies that most people share around the holidays :)

Yalanchi (Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves) 
Makes about 70
(Adapted from The Complete Armenian Cookbook)

1 jar (1 pound) preserved grape leaves
4 cups chopped onions
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup short-grain rice
2 tsp. tomato paste
1 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 tsp. sugar
6 T. lemon juice
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and hot red pepper
1 cup water, or as needed
Lemon slices, for garnish

Rinse the grape leaves in running water and remove stems. Set aside.

To prepare the filling, in a heavy skillet over medium heat, sauté the onions in the olive oil for about 8 minutes, until softened. Stir in the rice, and cook for 8 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and add the tomato paste, parsley, dill, sugar, lemon juice, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot red pepper. Allow the mixture to cool before stuffing the grape leaves.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and arrange the rack in the bottom third of the oven.

When the filling has cooled, lay the grape leaves with the underneath-side (the less smooth side with the visible veins) facing up, and place about a tablespoon of filling along the stem end of each leaf, fold over the sides, and roll from the stem up to form a sausage-like roll. Repeat with the remaining grape leaves. (If you have leftover filling, you can stuff bell peppers with it and cook it with the stuffed grape leaves.)

Arrange the stuffed grape leaves in an 8 or 9-inch square baking dish, lining them up 2 layers high. If you have extra unwrapped grape leaves, lay them across the top of the others. This will prevent the stuffed grape leaves from getting too dry or dark when baked. Pour water over the top to just cover the grape leaves.

Cover the pan with wax paper, and then a layer of foil. Place in the oven and bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the rice is puffed up and cooked through (taste one to be sure!). Remove the foil, but leave the wax paper on it while it cools completely (this will prevent the top from drying out). After it cools to room temperature, cover and refrigerate until cold.

Serve cold, garnished with lemon slices. This dish is best prepared a day ahead, covered, and refrigerated until ready to serve.


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