Hello, cousin.

That’s just how we say it, the Lebanese. It’s our expression of closeness to a friend, or a fellow Lebanese who may be a perfect stranger but is no stranger at all. It says: I know you, we share something we both treasure like gold, and you–you are special. I’ve even been known to call my own sister cousin.

When I say I have 60-plus cousins, that’s blood relatives. I can’t imagine life without them. I can’t imagine how many of the other kind of cousins I have, or any of us has, because that’s like trying to count grains of sand.

It was a cousin of the latter sort who gifted me with a whole different take on grape leaves, showing me that meat is not the one and only way (it’s just so hard to beat…).

The rolls were carried across the miles from Detroit by Patti, in a big huge tunjura (a big pot), in the dead of winter. It was the week Ruth passed away, and Patti, being the Lebanese that she is, went into the kitchen with her mother-in-law to see what they could do to send comfort for the grieving. The pot they used was no less a gift than the rolls, and Patti insisted we keep it. The mama wanted us to keep the pot, cousin said, needed us to keep it because she was distraught about this loss of life, and here is how she could let us know. She’d fill her best leaves with her best filling and fill her best pot with all of it. Then give it away.

Patti is so well-versed in loss of all sorts, her response is nearly Pavlovian. The very act of her leaving her family at Christmas, putting the big, steaming pot into her car (probably lodged in a box just the right size to keep it from jostling), and making the quiet, snowy drive over from Detroit is an undertaking. Then to walk right into the grief by herself with the pot and give everyone an I’m-with-you-in-this hug—that’s real-deal labor of love.

We ate up the hugs, but good Lord, what was the scent emanating from that pot? Either those grape leaf rolls have tinted my memory with rose, or Patti really did take one out, simply say: open, and put it in my mouth.

The rolls had layers of savory flavor, from tomato to herb to onion. But what made me want to sit down and get to the bottom of this roll was the texture, a tenderness that is just not achievable with the classic meat and rice filling. After a close inspection it was clear there was no meat here, that this was a flavorful mix of rice and chickpeas and a host of seasonings that melded it all together. I should not have been so surprised though, given how good we are at our vegetables, grains and pulses. What did surprise me was that I could enjoy a meatless grape leaf roll with as much mouth-watering desire as I do the lemony, meaty ones.

I looked at Patti wide-eyed while chewing. Right?, she said.

Right cousin. Who is not my cousin, but is my cousin.

Vegetarian Grape Leaf Rolls
Think of this filling like a pilaf that can be varied in all kinds of ways. Try bulghur instead of rice, or add other herbs like cilantro or mint. Toasted pine nuts are wonderful too. Chopped tomatoes and tomato paste can be added to the cooking water as well.

80-100 grape leaves, medium size, fresh or jarred
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups yellow onion, finely diced
2 cup red bell pepper, finely diced
1 ½ cups long grain rice
1 cup chickpeas, rinsed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
6-10 cloves garlic, peeled
2 lemons

If using fresh leaves, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes to soften, or blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes if the leaves seem tough. If using jarred leaves, rinse the leaves thoroughly and soak in cool water for 15 minutes. Pat the leaves dry.

For the filling:
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and red bell pepper. Cook until softened, stirring frequently. Stir in the rice, chickpeas and tomato paste, and season with 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, cinnamon and cayenne. It will take a few minutes for the tomato paste to distribute while stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley and cilantro. Taste the filling (spitting out the uncooked rice) and adjust seasonings. Cool.

Prepare a dutch oven by lining the bottom with grape leaves to protect the rolls from scorching.

To stuff and roll the leaves:

Place grape leaves facing vein-side up on the work surface,  with the wide stem-end of the leaf toward you. The amount of filling spooned onto each leaf will depend on the size of the leaf. Drop about a heaping teaspoon of filling across the stem edge of the leaf, leaving enough leaf on either side of the filling for rolling.

Fold each side of leaf over the filling like an envelope, hold those newly folded sides in place and lift that stem edge up over the filling, tucking the edge under the filling. If this is difficult, take away some of the filling. Roll the leaf tightly away from you, tucking the right and left edges under as you go. Keeping the roll tightly wound will help prevent it from unraveling while it cooks.

Arrange the rolls in tightly packed rows in the dutch oven as you roll, alternating the direction of each layer of rows. Tuck garlic cloves in here and there. Place a plate face down over the top layer to prevent the rolls from floating.

Fill pot with warm water up to the plate. Season the cooking water with a teaspoon of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. After about 15 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 10-15 minutes longer, until the rice is tender.

Remove the cover from the pot from the heat. Take the plate off the rolls and let the rolls cool off. They will be much easier to remove from the pot once they have cooled off and firmed up. Another method is to place an inverted plate or platter over the pot, then invert the pot and the plate, removing the pot and leaving the rolls on the plate. If you try this, be sure to pour off the cooking liquid first.

Serve with fresh lemon slices as a garnish, and labne as a dip. Makes 80-100 rolls.

Print this recipe here.