Lebanese Grape Leaf Rolls, a taste of Dier Mimas

There is one thing I’ve always thought was a given about grape leaves: that fresh is best. In other words, that leaves picked when they’ve just unfurled from the vine in the spring and eaten immediately make the finest little stuffed rolls.

Or so I thought, until I met my father’s cousin May, and therefore my cousin May, in Lebanon recently. May spoke to me of my father’s family village of Dier Mimas, a place I’ve held in my lifelong imagination. She had heard we would not be traveling to the village, and she wanted to know why. My response pained me, as it did her, but I thought it best to simply out with it: I want to go there very badly, but we don’t think it’s safe. The village is at the southernmost point of Lebanon, on the Israeli border. Safe! It’s fine! May said. Then Aunt Augette, a commanding beauty of a matriarchal woman, chimed in and saved me: No, it is not safe, and they should not travel there. Period. The End.

We spoke then of the thousands of grape leaves May picks in her home village every year. They live in Beirut now, as many do, and travel to their villages every weekend to relax and see the family. May preserves the leaves of Dier Mimas not by freezing them, but by jarring them in water and salt.

May told me she prefers to jar her leaves because they retain a nice color and have great flavor. Then she offered to make some for us so we could taste her pride and joy. Then she offered to send a jar home with me. Good manners would have refused but I couldn’t help myself from saying yes on every count. And the look on her face reminded me that good manners, Lebanese-style, is to accept the invitation of family and food, to eat, to enjoy, and to recognize the gift of the cook that you have been given.

And what a gift it was. We had decided on this dinner just the night before, but here was a spread that would take most of us days to prepare: kibbeh nayeh (yes, we ate it raw more than once in Lebanon; it was spicy and delicious), kebab with toum sauce, tabbouleh, hummus, labne, and a massive platter of Dier Mimas grape leaves. She’d made 300 tiny rolls that day. Also plates of green plums and kumquats (such color!), Lebanese wine and arak graced the table. Oh, and little pizzas, I can’t forget the pizzas! Then desserts of all sorts filled the table, including the Lebanese ice cream I’d been hoping to taste all week. But even my sweet tooth couldn’t help but be dazzled instead by the fava beans that were handed to each person straight from a brown bag from the market. We plucked them from their pods, popped the beans from their skins, salted them, and ate. What a contrast to the precious eating of favas that takes place in San Francisco restaurants all spring. It was the finest palate cleanser I’ve ever had.

I was in the kitchen before dinner and May showed me her stuff, her way of kneading the kibbeh, her way of combining the tabbouleh with all of its components prepared and waiting for this moment in the refrigerator, and her way of demonstrating that here in her kitchen was the epicenter of the family. Her gorgeous children and husband buzzed all around her, teasing and laughing. You like my home? May asked with a smile in her broken English. Oh yes, I like your home. In walked more cousins and more, and the elders whose faces I knew even though I had never seen them before. One of these women, Aunt Miriam, wore a black and cream silk blouse and first thing she said, showing off her blouse, was: Hilda bought me this! It looked just like a blouse Aunt Hilda would buy, and that gifting probably took place 25 years ago.

Aunt Miriam and the others of that generation there with us that night—they are nieces of my grandmother. My father’s mother, Nabeha. Who I never met because she died when she was only 49, when my father was only 20. Who I’ve heard so much about and written so much about that I begin to be unsure of what I’ve made up and what is actually true about her and about Dier Mimas. I asked Aunt Miriam and Aunt Augette at dinner that night in Lebanon: you remember my grandmother, Nabeha? Of course! they said. And we loved her! She was wonderful!

Of course! I said. It was all too much, and at the same time, not enough. I wanted to trace their faces onto my fingertips and record the sound of their words in my ears. I wanted to go to Dier Mimas, and taste it all. Next time, I said, we will go to Dier Mimas.

My tears flowed freely that night, as they had the night before when I sat at dinner next to Mirna, another young cousin of this clan who spent so much time with my brother Chris and his wife Ruth when they were in Lebanon six years ago adopting little John. Mirna kept Ruth close during what turned into days of war. Mirna took risks for Ruth without another thought (just as Ruth took risks for John without hesitation), driving her through the bombed city to get her and the baby to the military boats so they could leave. I asked Mirna, was that the area just over there on the coast of Beirut where you took Ruth? And here we were looking at a photo of the baby who is no longer a baby but a beautiful little boy whose mother escaped a war, but not the cancer that took her from him.

Can you blame me for the tears of both joy and sorrow?

Or for taking home the jar of grape leaves from the soil of an unreachable Dier Mimas?

Or for writing this blog, which we all know by now is becoming a love letter to history, to family, to food, to that which we know because we taste it, and do not know because we have never been there.


Lebanese Grape Leaf Rolls
The method is the same whether you are using fresh or jarred grape leaves, except the fresh leaves need not be soaked in cold water. To make smaller rolls, cut jarred leaves in half.

80-100 grape leaves, medium size
1 cup long grain rice
1 pound ground beef (90% lean) or lamb
½ cup butter, melted
½ tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 lamb or pork neck bones, 2 bone-in pork chops, or 6 chicken wings (optional)
3 large grape leaves
2 lemons

Rinse the leaves thoroughly and soak in cold water for 15 minutes. Line a heavy, deep pan with meat bones if using, then 3 grape leaves. (Line the pan with just the leaves if no meat is being used).

For the filling:
In a medium-size bowl, combine rice, ground beef or lamb, butter, salt, pepper, and cinnamon. Mix well with your hands.

Prepare a dutch oven by lining the bottom with lamb or pork bones, pork chops, or chicken wings. Spread 3 large leaves over the top of the meat.

To stuff and roll the leaves:
Place grape leaves facing vein-side up on work surface with the wide stem-end of the leaf toward you. Drop 1 heaping teaspoon of filling across that stem edge of the leaf, shaping like a finger, leaving enough leaf on either side of the meat for rolling. Don’t roll the leaves too tightly—allow room for rice filling to expand. Fold each side of leaf over the meat like an envelope and roll securely, away from you.

Arrange stuffed leaves in rows in a heavy, deep pan, alternating the direction of each layer of rows. Slice the lemon crosswise into several ¼-inch slices and lay the lemon slices over the rolls. Place a plate face down over the top layer to prevent the rolls from floating.

Fill pot with warm water up to the plate. Cover and bring slowly to a boil. After about 20 minutes, add the juice of one lemon to the cooking water. Some prefer much more lemon than this, or none at all; adjust as you please. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30-40 minutes, for a total cooking time of about one hour, until rice is tender.

Serve with cooked lemon slices as a garnish and labne.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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41 Responses to Lebanese Grape Leaf Rolls, a taste of Dier Mimas

  1. Janet Moore says:

    What a beautiful story. It also brought tears to my eyes. My mom took her mom to Lebanon many years ago. The pictures and stories were abundant. I have always wanted to go…maybe one year I will make the trip. It is on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sofia Perez says:

    Just for the family stories alone, this blog entry is wonderful, but then you give us a recipe for the stuffed grape leaves, and you just about send me over the moon. I live in a very Greek neighborhood in NYC (locally, it used to be called “Little Athens”), so I’ve always had dolmades, and it’s one of my favorite dishes, from any type of cuisine, period. So now I am obligated to make your recipe!!! I cannot wait…

  3. Jerry Wakeen says:

    Delightful story, thanks for sharing.
    I will send this one off to my family tree list also, I am sure it will tug at their hearts as it did mine.
    I too always wanted to visit Lebanon but my wife worries about safety.
    But I am sure the present residents know where to and where not to go.
    You made it back with your jar of grape leaves, so you were well taken care of.

    A while back someone sent me an aerial shot of Blat, where our relatives came from, a small village nestled in the hills. Quite different than what you might imagine. I think that was the foreign equivalent of Google.

    Our local expert in Wisconsin (Lebanese restaurant owner) likes his rolls very small with modest amounts of stuffing, pork and chicken boiled to get the stock, lemon on top at the end, all very good, yours looked wonderful also.

    I like cabbage rolls too, made an inch thick and about 6 inches long, with a tomato juice cooking stock, we always got them before they were done, mom would complain but we maintained they were done (even though the rice was still crunchy).

    Thanks Maureen much for your trip and stories.
    Jerry

  4. This story was beautiful. Both sets of my Grandparents came from Deir Meirmas. Almost made me cry which i do easily. Thank-you

  5. Actualy i ment i don’cry easily. Oh well

  6. Jody Namey Atty says:

    Total agreement with all previous comments!! Beautiful, just beautiful…in so many ways!!!
    Love, Jody

  7. Scot says:

    Maureen — Is that John’s beautiful hand? The boys just love the grapeleaves!! :)

  8. Joe Joseph says:

    Maureen,
    Another beautiful story. Thank you.

    Grape leaves are one of our family favorites. I learned to make them by helping my Dad and Mom roll them when I was a kid, and my children gathered around the kitchen counter and similarly learned from me. When my grandchiidren are old enough they will no doubt carry on. Try cooking them in chicken broth instead of water, especially if not using bones. This makes for a richer flavor. (My Dad taught me this.)

    • Leslie Massad says:

      Hi …wonderful story…thank u so much for sharing …exactly how I make mine with the chicken broth …go good!!!!
      ………..Leslie

  9. Thanks for sharing your stories… your blog always provides a nice break in my busy day. Very evocative writing.

    And another winning recipe. I will make these for my kids… canned stuffed grape leaves and dolmas have been a guilty pleasure of ours for years. It’s time to upgrade to homemade.

  10. Maureen you write so beautifully. I love reading your stories. God love you, you are so special. You make my day. much love, virginia

  11. Diane Spaniolo Gallagher says:

    Maureen, you brought tears to my eyes. God bless you.

  12. Lana says:

    Maureen, your stories could be mine, and your formidable Aunts look just like my Aunts in Serbia, surrounded by hand-tatted doilies and beautiful pastries they share with their neighbors. Our paths are so similar and my visits overseas are always filled with anguish and tears, as much as joy and laughter. But I would not change that for anything:)
    Influenced by the Orient, we also make these little rolls, but as we are land-locked, the preferred green is mostly sorrel. Throughout spring and summer months, this was a favorite meal of mine, and my girls continue the tradition, craving the rolls each year.
    Thank you for your beautiful voice that brings me into your life as if I were a member of your family.
    I don’t know if this is a big deal or not, but i nominated you for Food Stories Award. I hope the links work if you want to go and check out the site. http://foodstoriesblog.com/food-stories-award/ And here is my post about the awards: http://bibberche.com/2012/05/food-stories-award/
    Have a great holiday weekend! Sending a big wave to Michigan, which was my first harbor when I landed on the U.S. soil. Ten years have left quite an impact and I still consider myself a Michigander in a way:)

  13. Stuffed grape leaves would be my dish of choice if I ever to be on a death row. How wonderful your story to show up around May 25th liberation day. My favorite thing to eat with grape leaves stuffed with meat is my homemade yogurt which also made it healthy aperture.

  14. Asma Khoury Safadi says:

    Beautiful words. I hope you will be able to visit Deirmimas soon.

  15. Roger Toomey says:

    Did you know this page is listed on the Deir Mimas facebook page?

  16. Fragolina says:

    hey Maureen. I like your post, and it’s a bit sad that you couldnt be able to go see our village DeirMimas. you know, we go there every 2 week-ends, and it is safe. I know that abroad the news projects a different image of the situation in Lebanon but it’s not as it seems.Hope next time you visit Lebanon, you don’t miss Deirmimas. And if I’ll be here we’ll go together.
    I saw your picture in a magazine, Taste & Flavors, distributed in Beirut cooking Festival which I visited today. It’s a nice article about your blog and your Lebanese Cuisine.
    my mother and i were guessing about your parents and grandparents. My mom is a Hourani, and my dad is a Toubia. take care. we’ll stay in touch.

  17. jeannette says:

    Hi,

    First, I really enjoy your site! I grow grapes in my backyard and wonder if anywhere on your site you mention how to jar leaves and if so do you specify as to which kind of leaves are best for jarring?
    Regards,

    Jeannette Khoury
    Montreal, Canada

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thank you Jeanette! I haven’t jarred my own leaves (we always freeze them) but that’s a great idea…. The only leaves we use for this dish are wild grape leaves, not cultivated leaves from grapes (the wild ones don’t bear fruit).

      • marion estephan says:

        Maureen, I had never never heard of wild grape leaves before my daughter married into a Syrian family.I grew up in a Lebanese community in Pa. and always had leaves from fruit bearing vines.When I make for my family I stuff about 800 to 900 each time.Then i try to freeze enough to make it a couple of times during the winter.I would never be able to have room to jar them.Just wanted to let you know I love your posts.

  18. marion estephan says:

    Dear Maureen,
    I just found your website and I am in love with it.I am an American born Lebanese married to a Lebanese
    born American.I love reading about your family.I was so glad to see that you make your stuffed grape leaves in lemon just as I do.I can’t find many people that do it that way.I have a large grape vine and am constantly stuffing leaves for my large family.I try to stuff as as many as my freezer will hold and then just freeze the leaves and then by adding a little extra olive oil they cook up delicious in the winter.My in-laws were from Kferksghab in North Lebanon and the love of food and family also binds us together.

  19. Rania Squillo says:

    Hi Ms. Abood,

    I’ve made this dish three times & each time my family says “it’s exactly like grandma’s.” You don’t know happy I am when I hear that because my mom passed away in 2000 & unfortunately I was not at all interested in learning to cook back then. I stumbled on this recipe one night when my sister wasn’t around & I wanted to attempt to make this. I kept thinking to myself no way! Like I’m really gonna find a recipe when I googled Lebanese stuffed grape leaves. Since then, I just wanna jump in my car & drive all the way to Michigan every time I read a new story or look at the postcards from Up North!! I love the stories & the pics. Keep them coming!!! Oh & the recipes are so easy to follow & delicious.

    Regards,
    Rania

  20. Tom Gebora says:

    Hi Maureen,
    You need to be playing baseball; you just hit another homerun. Thank you for the great piece and recipies. Any information on the baby coosa? I’m still looking.

    Regards,
    Tom G.

  21. Nora Trabilsy says:

    Loved your story. Have a similar one when my husband and I visited Sydney Australia to meet the children of my mother’s half brother. He was left in Lebanon as a child when his father died and mother had no where else to go as he was considered property of the husband’s family. She came to the U.S. and had two little girls, dying when they were very young. She never saw her son again, he never saw his mother and my mother and her sister never met their brother. When our families found each other my mother and their father had passed. When I stepped off of the plane, 100 years of longing were fulfilled. I met loving cousins and saw in them the faces of my past. I can only assume that my mother and her brother had a hand in this once they were together in heaven. We remain close and they have also travelled to Michigan for my daughter’s wedding. Our next journey is to go to Lebanon to see my family’s home. Thank you for sharing your memories.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That’s just amazing and so touching, Nora. We are kindred spirits then. Thank you for writing and please stay in touch.

  22. samy Husseini says:

    Hi Maureen,
    I don’t know where to start, talking about your touchy story or your wonderful grape leaves recipe,
    however, i think you are one of the most Lebanese great story teller and cook.
    I truely enjoyed your stories and your ways of preparing Lebanese food. you are one of the kind women who has a great soul and great love of our culture and heritage.
    I told you in the pass that i do cook for my family and enjoy the creation of food from scratch. I think when we take the time to create a meal for our beloved ones, it gives us the peace of mind that our children are well fed there fore they will be strong.
    last time i visited Lebanon was 20 years ago, I went to Baalbeck my home town and to byblos my fother’s home town and spent couple weeks in Beirut at my sister’s house. I enjoyed two dishes in Lebanon, one was simple Falafel and the second one was Samaki harra (spicy fish).
    I was wondering if you have a recipe for Spicy fish the Lebanese way, i would appreciated.
    I wish you the best and wish one day to meet you as I said in my last email to you.
    Samy

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Samy, that is beautiful and I thank you for your wonderful words. I have a pan-seared snapper that is similar to the spicy fish in Lebanon–see it here:

  23. Linda says:

    I recently purchased stuffed grape leaves (meatless) they were great. I make my own, however these (purchased) I was told has fresh tomatoes, any one know how to make these? thank you

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thanks Linda–the meatless are delicious and can be made a variety of ways. Here’s my recipe, which includes fresh tomatoes:

  24. Sean Rami Abass says:

    Hi Maureen, I just read the Saveur Best Food Blog Awards. Congratulations. I’ve been planning on making Stuffed Grape leaves as I was driving yesterday, and after reading your blog decided that I must this week!
    I don’t have fresh leaves or even my favorite brand(Orlando).Ihave been taught by my Tita and Dad how to roll them. Grandma likes them too small compared to my father’s instructions. A little more filling. I have not tried a lamb or goat bone yet. I noticed no tomatoes(sliced on top instead of lemons). peeled garlic cloves to pack around the rolls, or cumin. 1/2 cup of lemon juice in the water makes it perfect for me. My wife, Fabiola and I love to eat the grape leaves that are from the bottom of the pot. I also like the tomatoes. I miss those times sitting down with dad(Rami),Grandma(Nadia) and my brother and sister(Brook and Nadia). Thanks again for Your sharing, Sean

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Wonderful Sean–I love hearing about your family and their way in the kitchen! Thank you, and enjoy the grape leaves!

  25. valerie Solomon says:

    Thank you for this…I made these for the first time in many years…I was just a wee one….

 

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