Stuffed Grape Leaves… Sito’s Way


Today, I’m excited to share with you a childhood recipe that is loved by the whole family to this day.  Stuffed Grapes Leaves.

First, let me say this recipe has never left our family.. eva.  My mom, Sito (grandmother in Syrian), has made this for us since we were little wee ones.  I think I had a few too many myself, but these are truly my favorite Syrian food.  With four daughters and one son, at least two of the daughters have made them.  It’s such a great recipe to carry down the family tree.

There are a coulple of ways (that I know of) the leaves can be stuffed.  Some cultures use lamb, some beef.   We use beef.  Mind you, this recipe has never be written down by mom, it’s all from memory.  My oldest sister, Joan, was able to capture many of Sito’s recipes for us and gave us our own Syrian recipe book.  Love her for that.  Oh, and my mom is still alive and makes these for family gatherings. She’s 86.  Yubbo!

Ok, ok.. I’ll stop chatting and get to it.  Here’s what you need:

1 -lb hamburg
1- cup long grain rice (uncooked)
1- 6 oz. can of tomato paste
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 cup lemon juice (or more for tartness)
3 1/2 cups of water
5-6 whole garlic cloves – OR whatever you like.. some people like more garlic than others
and of course… grape leaves.

Now, let’s talk about the leaves for a minute.   You can certainly buy a jar of prepared leaves at the grocery store. .. but we have never done that.  After all, grapes leaves are all over the place to pick from the side of road or maybe a neighbor’s back yard (thanks, Diane; check out her delicious blog and fun adventures).  The best time to pick them is in June, here in Massachusetts.

So, let’s say you want to be an ethnic diva and prepare your own leaves.  Great.  I’m proud of you.

Pick, say, 50 leaves; that’s a good number, I think. Bring them home and lay them out on a counter or table.  Snip off the stem and begin to put them in piles from largest to smallest.  Put about 10 leaves in one pile.. you’ll have 5 piles of leaves.  Make sure there are no icky bugs, spiders or dirt on them.  You want nice healthy looking leaves.   Now, go grab some string, yes, I said string.  You know the kind you sew with.  Roll up each pile of leaves into a jelly role like shape and wrap the string around them. You are winding the string around the roll about 8-10 times.. just get them secure enough that they don’t unravel.   Fill a pot with water and bring to boil.  Once boiling, put the rolled leaves in the pan and boil for about 1 minute.  You’ll see the leaves go from bright green to a darker shade.  Make sure you roll them around so it’s fully boiled.  Take out and drain and cool.

At this point, you can begin the stuffing, but you can also freeze these in freezer bags as they are (all rolled, boiled and cooled).  Then when you want to use them for a meal, just defrost ahead of time (I’ve had leaves in my freezer for over a year).  But, for this purpose, once they are cooled, unravel or snip the string and lay them flat, ready to be stuffed.

Let’s put the meat stuffing together.

Mix the hamburg, raw rice, tomato paste, allspice, salt, pepper all together in a bowl.  Mmmm the smell of the allspice and tomato paste… oh my.  Get in there with your hands and mix.  Ahh, now that feels good or as my girls would say.. “ew”.   Now, I know this may sound gross, but take a little of the stuffing and just taste it.. you don’t eat it, but take a little and put it on your tongue.  You don’t want it to be bland. If you like the balance, you’re golden.

Next….get your station prepared… on the table.. stuffing on one side leaves on the other.  Take one leave at a time, lay it vein side up and put a log shape of meat in the bottom center of the leave; stem side towards you.


Watch how it’s rolled… sides in first, the roll up from the bottom.


Ok..there’s ONE.  Now do the rest.  Make sure they are rolled nice and tight. You don’t want them unraveling when they are being cooked.  Great job… they are ready to cook.  I’m excited!


Get a pan.  Now, you want to protect the bottom layer of grape leaves as they cook.  We use broken dishes.  No, you don’t have to break your dishes.  You can use a good dish if it fits in the bottom of the pan OR line it with aluminum foil.  Again, the idea is to not burn the bottom layer.  One at a time, start to layer the rolled leaves evenly.


Once you layer all the leaves in the pan, you must prepare the liquid it will simmer in.

Take 3 1/2 cups of water and 1/2 cup of lemon juice and mix together in measuring cup.  Some people like more tartness, if you are one of those, then use more lemon.  Taste it and see if you like the balance.
Cut your peeled garlic cloves in half.  Pour the water/lemon mixture gently over the leaves, until they almost cover the top layer.. you don’t want the top layer submerged.  If you don’t need all the water and it’s at the right level, then STOP pouring.  If you need more water, then make a little more of the liquid.


Take the garlic and spread all over the top of the leaves.  I used granulated garlic that I mixed in with the water/lemon.  But, just picture a lot of garlic on top.

To finalize this lovely presentation, you need to set something on top.. Yes, more broken dishes or even a small plate.  The idea here is to put a bit of pressure on top so the leaves aren’t moving around from the simmering.  Sito uses her pressure cooker that she has down to a science.  That woman!

Cover the pan with a lid and let come to a can get it to start boiling, then bring it down to low. You want to hear a simmer.. little bubbling sound, but NOT BOILING… nooooooooooo.

Let this simmer for about a hour.  I say “about”, because stoves vary. Some use gas, some have electric.  Mine took about 50 minutes and I had about 70 leaves.  Check them after 45 minutes.. test one. If the rice is soft and cooked, they’re done.   The liquid will evaporate; no need to pour any excess out.. there will very little.  GENTLY take each one out of the pan and present for eating.


More ideas:  This meat stuffing can be used to stuff cabbage rolls, tomatoes, summer squash or even red peppers.  Green ones too, but I’m not a fan of the green ones.  You use the exact same set up with the pan and the water/lemon/garlic.

Pair these up with a nice big salad, fresh bread and what a meal.

Please let me know if you have any questions on this delicious dish and if you make them, send me a comment; I would love to hear from you.

I’m exhausted and hungry now from writing this.

Thanks for stopping by!



16 responses »

  1. Sounds very yummy…never had stuffed grape leaves but have always wanted to try them…now where did you say you live? I can be there on a moments notice! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Now please listen everybody – these are DELICIOUS!!! Yes, that’s in all caps but I’m not yelling, just trying to tell you that these are the best I have ever tried. Now Judy also says to make sure there’s no yucky bugs on the leaves but she’s also got very strict criteria for picking the best leaves too – you need to mention that Judy because I think I flunked picking – but would I be correct in saying we want those nice young looking green leaves that aren’t all dry looking? I don’t know how else to describe the ones you rejected – do you have a better way of saying that?

  3. Oh Judy, Judy, Judy!!! Thanks so much for demonstrating this. I love stuffed grape leaves but have only had the vegetarian ones(just rice). In my ethnic tradition, this same stuffing is rolled in cabbage leaves. hence called stuffed cabbage. The rolls simmer in a tomato sweet and sour(honey and lemon) sauce and raisins, optional, can be in the sauce too. It is one of my favorite dishes but I haven’t made it in years. Like the stuffed grape leaves, it is a lot of work. But when I have made it, it is from a large head of cabbage and makes a potful.

    YUM….I’m hungry!

  4. Hey, Bobbie.. oh your version sounds yummy too. Maybe we should make our own at our next pot luck.

    Diane.. you gave me great leaves and I so enjoyed making them for you and John. The ones you don’t want are ones with and holes or rips in them. Once July comes around, they get a little too tough. Thanks for the love.

  5. Yummy!!! I have never made them but, we lived in Akron, Ohio many moons ago and they had or have a place owned by Syrians and they were the very best we have ever had. I cook most nights and just might make some.

  6. We LOVE the post!!! Now, I feel like I could actually make them 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to put this one together. Love you lots!! xoxo

  7. Judy,

    To hold down your stuffed grape leaves broken plates do work, but have you ever heard of a Dolma Tasi or Dolma Stone?

    Have you ever used a Dolma Stone to hold your Dolmades together while they cook? I understand this old world kitchen device does a wonderful job of keeping the Dolmades from unraveling and actually helps cook them from the top down due to the heat the stone holds. The holes allow steam to escape and the handle makes it very easy to take out of the pot.

    Wish I could attach a picture of a cooking stone. I could email one if you were interested.

    William A. Sheppard V.

    3rd Generation Owner/Artist of Pat Young Ceramic Arts
    Studio Celebrated 50 Years in 2004
    6-S-2-U & ME

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