When my mother first came to Canada, in 1977, she didn’t really bring a lot with her. I don’t know what she must have thought when she arrived here with her few belongings. How did she handle the culture shock? How did she handle the language barrier? All I remember is that mom was speaking fluent English by the time I was old enough to be aware and I remember the food she was feeding me.
The more I flip through our old family photos, the more questions I have. She had such great style. Did she bring all those clothes over here from Turkey? Or did she buy them here? What I do remember is that she was a very talented seamstress. She sewed a lot of her own clothes herself and would make me overalls with the leftover materials. If she had the opportunity to follow her passions, I have no doubt that she would have been the owner of a dress-making shop somewhere in the ByWard Market.
We lived in and around Lowertown for most of my childhood. First on Heney Street, then we moved to King Edward, then a few times we moved back and forth between the big brown high rise on the corner of Chapel and Rideau St. We were here and we were immigrants, and thanks to my mother’s cooking and keen sense of fashion, we were well fed and well dressed.
Nothing brings me back to those days more than a plate full of stuffed grape leaves (or yaprak sarmasi in Turkish). Small cigar shaped lamb- and rice-stuffed morsels that pack so much flavour—as much as they pack memories for me. They were a hit at my birthday parties, when my Canadian friends would come over and rave about all the good food Mrs. Kizir would make. They were a favourite at our family dinners, stacked to the brim of huge pots that seem to have no bottoms. They were a staple at most Turkish cultural events in Ottawa and still are to this day. You will always find a plate of stuffed grape leaves somewhere along the food lineup.
“They were a hit at my birthday parties, when my Canadian friends would come over and rave about all the good food Mrs. Kizir would make.”
Unfortunately, my mother is no longer with us, but I’ve made sure since her passing, that her personality, passion and love continue to exist through me. If you have taken anytime to get to know me, then you have gotten to know my mother as well. This recipe is brought to you by a fully confident me who is absolutely sure that I have done it the justice it deserves. You can also create a vegetarian version by excluding the lamb; substituting lentils or mashed eggplant instead.
The wine I’ve chosen to go with this dish is a 2013 bottle of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($34.95 at the LCBO). It complements the lamb and the deep rich flavour from the tomato, pine nuts and pomegranate molasses in the stuffing.
To begin, you will need grape leaves, of course. Bet you’ve seen them all around town but never thought they could be foraged freely for your enjoyment! We used to pick them all the time as kids. Sometimes found along the Ottawa River, near the bike path beneath the Parliament buildings, and even all the way up to where Sussex curves around Rideau Hall. We were standing around picking grape leaves with mom as curious passersby would stop and ask what we were up to.
If you don’t have access to fresh wild grape leaves to forage, do not fret, because you can always find them at your favourite Middle Eastern grocer. The amount of stuffing you’re going to make will be more than enough for one jar of preserved leaves. Be really careful when you are draining and taking them out of the jar, because ripped leaves are rather useless for this recipe. You want them to be whole, supple, not too leathery or veiny.
- 3 cups of white rice
- 1 lb of ground lamb (lentils or mashed eggplant for vegetarian option).
- 1 cup of pine nuts
- 1 whole diced onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp tomato paste or ½ cup of Pomodoro
- 1 diced red bell pepper
- Half bunch of chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
- 1 cup of olive oil
- 1 jar container of preserved grape leaves or about 30-40 fresh wild grape leaves.
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp dried mint
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp sumac
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp cracked black pepper
1. In a large sauce pan, on medium heat, toast the pine nuts until they are light brown, then add a half a cup of olive oil, diced onions, garlic and diced red peppers and cook until the onions are translucent.
2. Turn off heat and then add parsley, tomato paste (or Pomodoro) until all ingredients are well combined. You can add a splash of water if the paste becomes too dry.
3. Add uncooked rice and mix well together with rest of ingredients.
4. Add ground lamb (or mash eggplant/lentils for vegetarian option) and mix well together. At this point, you are not trying to cook the rice and meat (or eggplant/lentils) in the pan as the cooking happens after stuffing the grape leaves.
5. You will now need to add the spices and continue mixing the stuffing until you have a nice even consistency.
6. Once stuffing is ready, you are ready to place the mixture into the grape leaves. Above is a pictorial on how to do that, hopefully it’s easy enough for you right away, but if you need practice, don’t stress, it took me a few attempts to really get it right.
7. You can lightly grease your fingers with olive oil to help you with the rolling. Grape leaves really behave well when they are in contact with olive oil. Also, it intensifies the grape leaf flavour so much.
8. Once you have rolled a couple of unbroken, tightly wrapped grape leaves, begin placing them in a large cooking pot. At the bottom of the pot you should make a small blanket of grape leaves with olive oil, spread out to prevent burning. After that you will place each and every stuffed grape leaf on top of that layer.
9. About halfway up the pot, dress the stuffed grape leaves with a drizzle of olive oil and then continue the stacking process until you are somewhere near the top. Once your pot is full of beautiful little stuffed grape leaves, pour water into the pot until the water level reaches the top of the stack. Do not completely immerse of cover the grape leaves, you need just enough water to cook the rice and stuffing properly.
10. In the end you will cover the stuffed grape leaves with another blanket of grape leaves and then place a plate on top of everything to keep the stuffed grape leaves nice and compressed. After that, turn up the heat on the pot to medium high, until steam starts emerging from the pot. Once you see the steam, then reduce the heat to a bit lower than medium and let them cook for a good half an hour.
11. Check water levels and cooking progress once in a while. The stuffed grape leaves should not be rock hard, they should be softer to the touch. If you notice that water has completely boiled off, but the stuffed grape leaves are still tough, then add a bit more water and continue cooking.
12. Once the stuffed grape leaves are cooked, you can serve them in the pot our outside of the pot with a healthy splash of fresh lemon and with a side of cilantro yogurt or sour cream for dipping.
I hope that this recipe finds you and feeds you well. Remember that if you need any help whatsoever putting this whole thing together, you can always reach me at roughchopottawa at gmail dot com or via @roughchopottawa on Twitter and Instagram.
Thanks for reading and catch you next time! Until then, afyet olsun arkadashlar! (Bon appetit, my friends!)
Sarp Kizir is Apt613’s summer chef-in-residence. Look here for more of his delicious recipes.