Among other things, that meant that she didn’t bother to measure anything, but threw a little bit of this and a little bit of that into the pot. It took a determined effort on my husband’s part to finally get the recipe from her.
And even then, he only managed it because he insisted on being right next to her at the stove as she prepared it and stopping her at every step to write it down.
I remember well the two of them standing side by side in Mama’s old-fashioned kitchen, going back and forth loudly, but lovingly, in Greek. Her impatience at having to explain everything and his frustration at her seeming inability to be precise had the rest of us chuckling and shaking our heads affectionately.
It’s a memory I shall cherish forever.
The only substitutions I made were brown rice for the white that Mama used, and turkey meat for the beef that she used.
In Cyprus, this dish is called koupepia, while in Greece, it is known as dolmades. To us English-speakers, it’s simply stuffed grape leaves. They are tasty morsels of complete nutrition that normally demand a good amount of work to roll each individual leaf.
It takes substantial time, particularly when you need to make enough to satisfy the very healthy appetites of my 4 teenage boys.
In the pictures below, you can see how each grape leaf is rinsed or washed - depending on whether it's the jarred, brined version or fresh leaves - filled, rolled, and placed in the pot for cooking.
It's a painstaking process and a labor of love, indeed, to get the 60 or more I need for my hungry brood, and that's just enough for one meal!
Article continues after photos.
Then, one day, I decided to try a different approach to make the dish easier to prepare. In an experiment, I opted to just cut and add the leaves to the stuffing mixture instead of going through the laborious process of filling each one individually.
To my pleasant surprise, my husband and family loved it.
Thus this meal was born.
This discovery kind of sums up my approach to cooking in general. I’m definitely not about slaving over a stove or meal preparation. I absolutely believe that you can cook and eat well for remarkably little money or effort.
That's the point of this blog, after all. So if I can streamline a recipe to achieve taste results similar or identical to the more elaborate process, then I will certainly do it.
And I believe I have successfully achieved that with this family favorite by eliminating most of the work that results from filling the leaves, while adhering very closely to the original recipe. The result is that you get the entire flavor with a fraction of the time and effort.
I call it my every day version of stuffed grape leaves.
For special occasions, I would certainly still opt for the traditional approach of rolling each leaf, but the shortcut I recommend here suits the hectic routines of modern daily life much better.
Before getting to the recipe, however, let me explain a bit about grape leaves. They are not readily available fresh in my neck of the woods, so I have to buy the jarred, brined version.
The problem with that is the processed leaves are often prohibitively expensive – sometimes as much as $7-9 per jar - besides being salty and vinegary. I get around that latter problem by rinsing them thoroughly and reducing or eliminating any additional lemon and salt called for in the recipe (see instructions).
But that still leaves the expense issue. To make this a truly budget meal, I substitute other fresh, leafy greens that are cheaper and much easier to find in our markets. Mama herself often used Swiss chard leaves instead of grape leaves when the grape leaves were out of season in Cyprus.
Another possibility that’s easy to find in most U.S. grocery stores is escarole. And I have also had delicious results with kale leaves.
In fact, I have to confess that while I am not usually that fond of kale at all, I love it in this recipe. As does my whole family. And when you can get a huge bunch for under $1.50 - sometimes for much less -- it’s a bargain that makes this meal very economical.
Another option that I have not tried it, but I think would work very nicely, is collard greens. As with the kale, I would simply strip or cut the leaves from the stems, and just use the leafy part in the recipe.
Using kale and turkey meat on sale (of course!), this recipe costs about $10-$13 total and makes 10 generous servings, so approximately $1-$1.33 per person. Served with a tossed green salad and some whole wheat pita or other bread, the total meal cost comes to around $1.50-$2 per person. This recipe can also be easily doubled or halved, as needed.
Here's the recipe:
Makes 10-12 generous servings
Total prep time – approximately 15 minutes
Total start to finish time – 60-70 minutes
Total recipe cost – approximately $10-$13
Total per serving meal cost with salad and bread – approximately $1.75-$2.00
1-2 pounds ground turkey
1 cup brown rice
1 16-ounce jar or can grape leaves
1 large bunch of kale or collard greens,
or 2 bunches of escarole or Swiss chard
(About 1 pound)
1 medium onion
1 29-32 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
½ cup canola oil
1 large bunch of flat parsley to make 1-2 cups, coarsely chopped (More is fine, too)
1 lemon or 2-3 tablespoons lemon juice (cut in half or eliminate if using jarred leaves)
2 teaspoons dried mint
1 teaspoon salt (eliminate if using jarred leaves)
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups water
Ingredients (for the meal):
Stuffed Grape Leaves (Unstuffed)
Tossed green salad
Whole wheat pita or other type of bread (optional)
I cooked the diced onions in the oil until translucent, and added the chopped parsley, along with the mint, and black pepper and just a bit of lemon and cooked them all for about 5 minutes, until the parsley and onions were tender. I knew I would be using jarred leaves, so I left out most of the lemon and all of the salt. I added the ground turkey and distributed and mixed it well. I then added the crushed tomatoes and the cut up jarred grape leaves. I stirred everything together, covered the pot and let it simmer for about 20 minutes over medium-low heat. There is not a lot of liquid, so you want just a gentle simmer. I then mixed in 2 1/2 cups of cooked brown rice, covered the pot again, and let it heat through for about 5-10 minutes over low heat. It was ready to serve. Delicious!
Recipe continues after photos.
- If using jarred grape leaves, rinse them thoroughly, but gently, and then cut into approximately ½-inch pieces. Set aside.
- If using kale or collard greens, remove the leaves from the stems by either cutting them off, plucking them off, or by running your hand firmly along the stem and pulling it off. (Swiss chard stems are tender enough that you do not need to follow this step if you use them, and escarole has no stems to speak of, so just use the entire leaf, cutting it into appropriate size pieces, as needed.)
- For all fresh greens, use a large knife to cut the leaves lengthwise into strips, and then crosswise to create leafy pieces about 2 inches in size, for a somewhat chopped effect. Cut any Swiss chard stems into pieces about ¾ -inch to 1 inch in size.
- Place the cut greens in a large bowl of water and swish them around a bit to loosen any garden soil. Scoop them out and drain them in a colander. Rinse the washing bowl, refill it and repeat the washing process 1-2x as needed to make sure the greens are clean and free of grit. Drain in a colander, giving it several good shakes to dislodge most of the water.
- Measure out approximately 8 cups of the greens, firmly packed. The amount will vary, depending on how large the bunch of greens is. The greens will shrink by more than half with cooking. Store any extra greens in a plastic bag in the refrigerator after allowing them to drain thoroughly (wet greens deteriorate fairly quickly when stored).
- Cut the ends off the medium onion and peel it. Dice it into relatively fine pieces.
- Wash the parsley bunch by holding the bound ends and swishing the leafy ends vigorously in a large bowl of water. Empty and rinse the bowl and refill with clean water. Repeat the washing process as needed.
- Cut the stems off the parsley, and chop the leafy portions relatively fine to make approximately 1 cup, packed. Again, this amount will vary, depending on the size of the parsley bunch.
- Squeeze or measure out the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Skip this step if you are using jarred grape leaves. Or significantly reduce it.
- In a large bowl or pot, combine the one pound of turkey or ground beef, the 1 cup of rice, the chopped parsley, the diced onions,the ½ cup of oil, the 1 teaspoon of salt (skip the salt if you are using jarred leaves), the 1 teaspoon of pepper, the 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice, the 2 teaspoons of dried mint, and the 29-32 ounces of crushed tomatoes. Mix together well.
- Add the cut up greens or leaves and distribute them evenly in the mix. The fresh greens will take up a lot of room, but will reduce substantially during cooking.
- If necessary, transfer the mix to a large pot with a lid.
- Add the 2 cups of water. Stir it in well. Compress the contents with the back of a large spoon or plate.
- Cover the pan with its lid. Place the pan over medium heat.
- Bring to a boil, and adjust the heat as necessary to maintain a steady, gentle simmer. You don’t want it to be boiling too hard.
- Leave it to simmer for 60 minutes, or until the rice is done. Add more water in 1/2 cup increments if needed to cook the rice and keep the mixture from becoming too dry.
- Serve the meal with a tossed, green salad, and some nice whole wheat pita bread on the side. Plain yogurt is also a nice option to go along with this meal.