HOW TO MAKE YALANCHI - ARMENIAN STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES
As with Tabouleh, I grew up eating “yalanchi”, which are grape leaves stuffed with rice. We had them on holidays and gatherings at my Aunt Ruth’s house, ever since I can remember going there. We even picked our own grape leaves, plastic bags in hand, straight from the wild vine growing behind the local A & P. Embarrassing yes; but worth it, nonetheless. Those leaves would then be stacked, rolled and tied, and boiled like big fat green cigars. The packages of leaves were frozen and passed out to family and friends to make their own stuffed grape leaves.
As a young child, I stuffed them with Aunt Ruth, which I absolutely loved. By the time I was in high school, I must have made them with her dozens of times. Yet, I wanted to make them on my own. How hard could it be?
Well… my first forays into making these shiny luscious little logs did not beget the ones that I loved to eat. I distinctly remember serving them at my Aunt’s house to my Uncle Essia (yes-a), whose wife (Aunt Jean) made the plumpest tastiest grape leaves we were lucky enough to eat. He took only one bite of mine and pronounced them tough! Just like that…. feelings be damned. He said, “Here. Try Aunt Jean’s and see what I mean. You didn’t cook them long enough.” Of course, he was right, but I was quite disappointed. They took hours to make and I thought I should get some credit for that alone.
The recipe I had to go on - from the ladies at church - didn’t give any details about how things should look, what to expect and how to avoid common pitfalls. So I had to find out on my own; you know, trial and error style. Once I got started, I made them for every holiday and family gathering, and there they sat in a little bowl next to Aunt Jean’s grape leaves. In the beginning, they still sat in the bowl during clean up, looking a bit crusty. After a while (read: years), I figured it out. I started teaching my sister, and later my husband’s family, my daughter and finally, my students how to make them. Odd as they look to a child, they wasted no time gobbling them up.
Now, I am the “yalanchi” maker in the family (sadly, my Aunts have both passed on). It’s actually quite easy once you have a detailed recipe and learn how to roll them. This is especially true, because these days you can buy (almost as good) grape leaves in a jar. No more sneaking around the A & P parking lot with a plastic bag.
ARMENIAN GRAPE LEAVES STUFFED WITH RICE
Just because this recipe is long, don’t let it put you off. I have added many details to make it easier for you. Read through the entire recipe before you begin and you’ll see what I mean.
1 cup uncooked long grain white rice (like Uncle Ben’s)
2 cups minced yellow onion
1 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh dill
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 lemon – juiced*
1 ½ cups of water or more, if necessary*
1 large jar of grape leaves (about 50)
*lemon juice and water combined should equal 2 cups
Before you start
1. Carefully remove the grape leaves from the jar. Rinse the grape leaves with water and squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible. Set aside any leaves that are torn or too small. Put the “good” leaves on a flat plate.
2. Completely cover the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan with the ripped or off-size grape leaves that cannot be stuffed.
3. Locate a dish that just fits inside your saucepan and set aside.
Combine the rice, onions, olive oil, dill, cinnamon and salt and add to a skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, on medium/low until the onions are soft (not brown) and the rice is only partially cooked, about 10 minutes or so. Place the rice mixture into a bowl and let cool.
Stuff grape leaves
On a flat surface, lay one leaf vein side up, unfurled and completely flat in front of you. The stem should be pointing toward you. Snip off the stem if it remains on the leaf.
Place one teaspoon of filling on the bottom of the leaf. Using two hands, lift the bottom of the leaf up and over the filling. Roll tightly one turn, tucking in the mixture as you roll. Next, fold in each side of the leaf as tight as you can. Be sure that the rice is fully encapsulated in the leaf. Continue to roll the rest of the leaf and tuck in any stray edges as you go. Some of the leaves will be different sizes, so use your judgment as to how much filling to use. You will get the hang of it after a couple of leaves. Continue rolling all of the leaves until you have no more filling left (or leaves - which ever comes first).
Cooking grape leaves
Insure that a layer of leaves (we usually use the ones that have ripped) covers the bottom of your saucepan to protect the stuffed grape leaves from burning. One by one, place the stuffed leaves in the saucepan in rows and filling in the areas on the circular parts of the pan’s bottom until the entire base of the pan is covered. Continue to add more layers until all of the leaves all placed in the pan.
Next, place a plate upside down on top of the leaves inside the pan. The plate should weigh down the leaves slightly and should be large enough to just fit inside the pan covering all of the grape leaves.
Fill the saucepan with the water/lemon juice, pouring it right over the plate covering the stuffed grape leaves. Cover the pan with a lid.
Cook on medium until the water comes to a boil (or sounds like it is bubbling) and then turn down to low/simmer. Continue cooking for an hour. Make sure that the water does not completely evaporate in the pan. If it does, add another cup of water.
Once the grape leaves are completely cooked, leave them in the pan to cool. Remove the lid, but leave the plate in place. DO NOT be tempted to remove the plate from the top of the leaves until they are COMPLETELY cooled. Otherwise, you will have discolored and ugly looking (but edible) grape leaves.
Drizzle olive oil and squeeze the juice of ½ a lemon over the cooled grape leaves. Serve the grape leaves on a platter with more cut lemon.