There is rarely a family get-together where the main meal is not accompanied by a group of side dishes that are of the traditional flavors of our history in Syria. Many of our meat dishes are sweet, sour and savory all at once — often with warm spices and dried fruits.
When at a celebration such as a religious holiday, Sabbath meal or an American holiday, the turkey or a roasted beef or chicken dish is the focus of the table, of course. But the side dishes are like little gems sprinkled through the meal, which is almost always done as follows:
1. The main focus dish of beef, fowl or fish.
2. A stuffed vegetable dish such as Mesche (zucchini, tomato, cabbage leaves, carrots, potatoes or onions scooped out and stuffed with Hashu, a spiced meat and rice filling) or Yebrat (brined stuffed grape leaves, usually made with dried fruit and tamarind sauce (also referred to as oot).
3. Rice made with a browned noodle and a sauce usually made of a tomato base with a meat or meatball (Keftes or Blahat).
4. A vegetable dish such as string beans or peas made with warm spices and sometimes a braised beef on the bones (flanken).
I am going to share my family version of Yebrat, or rolled stuffed grape leaves. I remember cooking this dish with my grandma Sarah Menaged, whom I am named after. She spent many hours in her kitchen in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, laboring over a big cast-iron stovetop in the basement of her two-family home. I remember all the tips she gave me from how to cut off the stem of the grape leaf so there were no bites of the “cigar” that were not tender to how to stack the Yebrat in the pot so they would not unroll when cooking in the liquid. Of course none of our recipes were ever made exactly with appropriate measurements. I remember many times as a young married girl calling my mom or grandma and asking what goes in this or that dish, or how to fix something that came a bit different than the taste I remembered from their kitchens. Taste is the key, overall. I still call my mom often to get the flavor right. Sometimes folks like things sweeter or more sour, so these types of recipes can always be adjusted to your palate. Also, many times a similar substitution to an ingredient will do in a pinch! So the following recipe will be as close to a measurement as possible, but feel comfortable to know that you most likely cannot go wrong.
My Grandma Sarah’s Yebrat (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
Recipe courtesy of Sherryl Betesh
Yield: 12 side-dish servings
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours 10 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: 15 minutes
Ease of preparation: intermediate
Active Time: 50 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours 5 minutes (includes cooling time)
1 1/2 pounds chopped meat, such as beef or veal
3/4 cup short- or medium-grain rice
1/4 cup grapeseed, canola or vegetable oil
1 heaping tablespoon allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 jar brined grape leaves
About 2 cups dried California apricots
About 1 1/2 cups pitted dried prunes
1 cup tamarind sauce (oot) or Homemade Tamarind Substitute, recipe follows
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
A big splash of prune juice
A pinch of sugar
First prepare the hashu (meat and rice filling): Mix the meat, rice, oil, allspice, cinnamon, a pinch of salt and 3/4 cup water thoroughly in a bowl. You will need to use your hands to mix well.
Gently remove the grape leaves from the jar so there will be minimal breakage. They are usually packed tightly. Place a leaf with the shiny side down on a cutting board. With a small sharp paring knife, trim as much of the thick part of the stem that is extended from the leaf as possible without ruining the leaf. Usually the amount of meat and rice mixture here will fill just about the whole jar’s worth of leaves.
When all are trimmed, you will begin rolling the “cigars.” Again shiny-side down, fill each leaf about two-thirds of the way down nearest to the stem side with some hashu (filling). I cannot say exactly how much because all grape leaves are a different size! If you get lucky, your jar will have smaller, younger equal-size leaves–that is the jackpot of jars if you get one–so you will have more even and tender yebrat. The general size is about a finger’s thickness. Leave enough room on both sides to turn over the edges and cover the sides of the filling. Roll the top of the leaf over the filling and continue rolling down to the bottom, making sure no mixture escapes from the sides. It should look the same as a cigar, hence the nickname. It will roll similar to a burrito. It’s important not to roll them too tightly so that the rice can absorb liquid and they stay juicy.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Take a heavy covered stockpot that can go into the oven (around a 3-quart size). Place a full layer of apricots skin-side down on the bottom of the pot. Stack the rolled yebrat in concentric circles rather closely. Do the same with a second layer and a third as well. Continue until the yebrat are finished, trying to get an even layer at the top. Now place a layer of dried prunes on top of that. Take a glass or heat-resistant plate that fits as closely to the size of the pot as possible and turn it upside-down on top of the yebrat. This will help prevent them from unrolling when the liquid is absorbed in cooking.
Mix together the tamarind, lemon juice, prune juice, sugar and a pinch of salt. Pour the mixture into the pot and add water until all is covered up to the top of the rolls. Place on a medium fire until the liquid boils. Put it in the oven tightly covered and bake about 2 to 3 hours in the middle rack. (If it is possible in your oven to put the pot on the floor of the oven–usually a gas oven–do so with the temperature at 300 degrees F. This will caramelize the apricots.) Keep an eye out at about the 2-hour mark to ensure that the liquid does not evaporate to less than about two-thirds down the pot. The consistency will be syrupy. Your oven might take more or less time.
Let cool for a little bit and then take a platter with a lip on it or a wide enough shallow bowl to turn out the full pot upon. Place the platter or bowl on top and turn upside down. If anything sticks, gently nudge it out so as not to break up the yebrat, and use a spatula to try and keep the apricots pretty as a layer on top. Even if they turn mushy that is still fine.
This recipe will yield a full pot and feed around 12 people as a side dish. Bel Hannah wi Shiffa = Enjoy Your Meal!
[Cook's Notes:] When the “cigars” are rolled but before cooking, you may lay some out on a tray to freeze for later use if you would like. Then, when frozen, you may take them off the tray and put them into a resealable freezer bag. Cook them with sauce for another meal.
Both tamarind sauce and grape leaves are usually available in Middle Eastern stores or gourmet specialty stores.
Homemade Tamarind Substitute:
1 jar prune butter
1 jar prune juice
3/4 jar apricot preserves
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup brown sugar
Put the prune butter, prune juice, apricot preserves, lemon juice and brown sugar in a heavy saucepot and cook on a low flame, stirring, until it thickens into a creamy sauce, about 40 minutes. Let cool and then store in the refrigerator in an airtight container, preferably a glass one. Keeps well. It is a fine replacement for all sauces that call for oot.