My Mother's Grape Leaves

by Steve Zaillian
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My Mother Vina
My Mother Vina circa 1957

Instead of turkey, mashed potatoes, etc., stuffed grape leaves (along with shish-kabob and pilaf) is the traditional centerpiece of our Christmas dinner.

Disclaimer:  Every script I’ve ever written is overly descriptive and too long, so no doubt this recipe will be, too.  Apologies in advance.

Note:  Orlando Grape Leaves are perfectly fine to use, and available in most grocery stores.  Other, more exotic brands can be found in Armenian or Greek groceries.  But any, really, will do.


1 jar       Grape Leaves (8 oz. Drained Wt.)
1 lb.       Hamburger (semi-lean)
1 cup    Rice
4             Cans Tomato sauce (the small cans)
1             Lemon
2 tsp.    Allspice
1 tsp.    Dried parsley
1 tsp.    Salt
1 tsp.    Pepper

Mix (with your hands) in a large bowl (and the mixing with your hands part is important because it mixes well that way and it connects you to some ancient Armenian Old Country art of cooking):

The raw hamburger
The uncooked rice
½ of one can of tomato sauce opened with a church key
The juice from the quartered lemon
The Allspice
The dried parsley
And the salt and pepper


Dump the liquid from the jar of grape leaves in the sink (you don’t need it).

Vina with my sister Marcia and me

Carefully extract the packed clumps of grape leaves from the jar (this requires some dexterity not to rip them), and squeeze gently to get a bit more of the liquid off them.

Set out, like an assembly line:

1. The bowl with the meat-rice-etc mixture.

  2. A plate with the clumps of grape leaves on it.

3. Another plate you will construct the meat-rice mixture-filled grape leaves on.

4. And another plate to set the constructed grape leaves on.

Okay, now, to ‘build’ the grape leaves (this will take a little practice to do well):


1.jpgCarefully separate one grape leaf from the rest and lay it before you vein-side up on the ‘constructing’ plate. 






2.jpgIf there are young kids around, break off the stem  and give it to them to eat while they stand around watching you.  If there are no kids, just leave the stem on.






Take a little clump of meat-rice mixture (with your hands!), and place it on the middle of the grape leaf.  (This should be an amount that you can press into a shape about the girth of a Hi-Liter, but half its length).

Fold the bottom end of the grape leaf over the mixture and tuck it under, fold the sides over that, and roll the thing to the top of the leaf like a robusto cigar.  (the same basic sequence of actions you would do if you were making a burrito and didn’t want the stuff to fall out the sides - requiring slightly less IQ power than correctly folding a pre-cut cardboard file folder box). 

Note:  The tighter this thing is, the better, but be careful, grape leaves are kind of delicate and can only take so much.

Set the completed grape leaf on the ‘finished’ plate, pour a glass of wine (for you not the dish) and set about making the rest of the 30 or 40 grape leaves.  (You might also want to turn on some music; this is going to take a while). 

Once they’re all rolled:

Pack the now-filled-grape-leaves - vertically - in a 6-pint (or thereabouts) saucepan/pot with high walls (like 5 or 6 inches).  If you have to squeeze them in tight to fit, all the better.  If there's a little room left over on the floor of the pot when you're done, pack the already-squeezed-quartered lemon there (or a tomato if you end up with more room and happen to have one around).

Pour the half-can of tomato sauce you didn’t put in the mixing bowl that’s sitting there in front of you, onto the grape leaves in the pot.  Fill that now-empty can half-way with water and dump in. 

Do the same with the remaining 3 cans of tomato sauce, except now you’re dealing with full cans, so also add full cans of water each time (the idea being your tomato sauce  wants to be cut 1/2 with water, or it will be far too thick).  Hopefully, you’ll still have an inch or so to the lip of the pot when you’re done with all this so everything doesn’t boil over when you cook it.  But before you cook it:

Find a plate (and this is important), like a small salad plate, just a little smaller in circumference (diameter?) than the saucepan-pot you’re using, and submerge this plate under the now-thinned tomato sauce so it’s laying on top of the packed grape leaves like dead weight, which is what it is, the goal being to keep the grape leaves from floating around when they cook.  (My mother always used two plates which had no other purpose in the kitchen except for this, but believe it or not, I’m trying to simplify here, and one will do).

Okay.  To cook:

Put the pot on the stove uncovered, high heat.  When it reaches a full boil, turn it down to a low simmer (like you would rice) and cover.  Set the timer for 25 minutes.

After 25 minutes of simmering (not an exact science, but I caution you not to overcook too much - the rice should be al-dente, if I can use that term in Armenian cooking), take the pot off the stove.  Remove the lid.  And here comes another dexterity (and strength) challenge:

3.jpg With one hand, hold the pot over a new bowl big enough to catch the tomato sauce.  With your other hand, press a wooden spoon against the salad plate that’s still on top of the grape leaves in the pot.  In this unnatural, uncomfortable position, pour all the tomato sauce into your new ‘sauce bowl.’

Note:  Something other than a wooden spoon might be less precarious (like a rolled-up dishtowel) but that would not be in keeping with the spirit of what’s going on here, or, indeed, history itself.

Now, remove the ballast-salad-plate from the pot (you are allowed to use a dish towel for that).  Find a larger, attractive plate (larger than the mouth of the pot), place it upside-down on the lip of the pot, and ask all to gather round to spot you for this next dangerous maneuver:

Grasping both pot and plate in your pot-holder or mittened hands (and remembering that the contents are still hot), upend this contraption in one death-defying motion and the grape leaves should fall neatly and splay artistically onto the plate (which is why you used an attractive one; it is now your serving platter).

To eat, and this should be done without a lot of standing around and chatting first, lest it all gets cold, two options:

Put some grape leaves on your dinner plate and pour some of the tomato sauce they cooked in on top.  Or:

I prefer (and recommend) first making a neat, Sweeney Todd-like incision lengthwise in each grape leaf on your plate, and then pouring the sauce on, so it soaks in better.

That’s it.  I have to go now.  Back to the picket lines...


steve-1a.jpg PS  Lamb cannot be substituted for the hamburger.  I know you may be tempted to try this, thinking you could get away with it, and that it might actually be good.  But it’s not right.  This is a working class dish.  Lamb is much too fancy.  The word itself is too fancy. 


Steve Zaillian is a screenwriter and director.


#3 David Deranian 2010-03-10 02:28
This recipe for 'Sarma' the Old Country name my family used for stuffed grape leaves, sure brings back memories of Armenian life on a small farm in Sanger, CA.

My grandma, who was not Armenian, would painstakingly prepare the Sarma, a kind of right of passage to establish her as a real Armenian cook.

Thanks Steve, for reminding me of those wonderful days.

David Deranian
#2 gita 2009-09-11 08:14
Marvelous. I didn't know a recipe could be so fun to read. I have a sister Marcia, too, and she's a gourmet cook and baker.

I'm the one who "doesn't live up to her potential," so I think I'll just enjoy reading the recipe and not make it.

Familiar last name of the writer. Mayhap his father goes to Southern California Library affairs.

#1 Gail Kaszynski 2009-04-30 14:21
That's a beautiful photograph of the original cook. I remember when you taught me how to make them. I've been going around for years saying I know how but I've only tried it once since so this is very nice. Who did the drawings?

My daughter and I are mostly making "Cupcakes 911" (her name) for unplanned, emergency celebrations for teen boys on the move. Maybe this summer, outside, if the sunflowers come up and we're counting the bees.

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