SUCCULENT PORK STUFFED
I love you cabbage, but Spring is (supposed to be) coming -- if you live in Canada, you know what I am talking about. I’m Eastern European and for me any quintessential Winter dish will likely involve sauerkraut or pork, or both, like the beloved cabbage rolls. But enough of that, I want green! I want something that reminds me that warmer days are around the corner damn it!
Cue grape leaves. What could be more evocative of sunny, warm climes right? I know that most likely you've already tried the Middle Eastern or Greek version but I assure you, you have not had it like this. These are served hot, contain pork (we might give up sauerkraut temporarily but no way we are forgoing pork), and are so beautifully succulent.
Now, if you've never eaten grape leaves, you are missing out. They have a wonderful slightly sour flavour, good texture, and absorb the flavour of whatever it is you are cooking them with without losing their distinct qualities. You can buy them in many speciality stores ready preserved in great big jars, so why not try them?
SUCCULENT PORK STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES
Serving – makes about 25 rolls
preserved grape leaves, 40 (enough to line/cover pan and in case some rip while rolling)
500 g minced pork (go lean if you must, just remember this: the more fat, the more succulent the result, just sayin’)
1 Tbs. oil
½ large onion finely chopped
pinch of salt
2 Tbs. rice
2 ½ Tbs. tomato paste
boiling water (enough to cover)
1 small egg
a few sprigs of fresh thyme (you can use dry)
1 tsp. sweet paprika
salt and pepper
2 cups water
thyme/bay leaves (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 325 F
2. First, you need to unfurl the rolled up jarred grape leaves and soak them in a large bowl of water while you prepare the meat filling. Remember to drain just before rolling.
3. In a skillet, sweat the onions in the oil until translucent, stir in the rice and continue to cook for another minute. Stir in 1 Tbs. of the tomato paste then add enough boiled water to barely cover the rice and onions. Let simmer for a few minutes until the rice is ¾ of the way cooked and the water is absorbed. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Place the minced pork in a large bowl, add 1 small egg, thyme, paprika, salt and pepper. Give it a stir then add the onion and rice mixture. Mix well with your hands until everything is fully and evenly incorporated.
5. Before you begin rolling the grape leaves, make sure you cut the stem off from each leaf as it is hard and not very pliable.
6. To roll, flatten out the leaf on a clean board, veiny underside up. Take about a tablespoon’s worth of the mince mixture in your hand a shape it into a short elongated sausage. Place it centre on the bottom part of the leaf. Fold the sides over and roll up away from you, tuck in at the sides again, then continue rolling all the way to the top, delicately.
7. Cover the bottom of a pan (you can use a cast iron pan, a clay pan, or any oven-safe pan so long as it’s at least 2 inches deep) with grape leaves. This will protect your delicate parcels from burning and simply makes them that much more succulent. Arrange each parcel on the pan. Depending on the size or depth of your pan, you can layer them on top of each other or you can simply make one layer like I did. Now you’ll need to add some moisture to your pan by dissolving 1 ½ Tbs. of tomato paste in about 2 cups of water, stirring it with a spoon. Pour the liquid over the nicely arranged rolls until at least half way up. For extra aromatic appeal, you can place a few sprigs of thyme and/or bay leaves on top of your rolls. Lastly, cover the pan with a layer of grape leaves to ensure your little parcels are nice and protected while they cook.
8. Place the pan in the oven and let cook gently for about 2 hours.
You can eat them on their own with some fresh bread and sour cream or do as I did and serve them on a bed of polenta, topped off with a dollop of prepared sour cream – sour cream, a squeeze of lemon, and salt.