One of my most cherished possessions is a cookbook given to me by my great-grandma. It’s titled From The Lands of Figs and Olives and it’s a Middle Eastern cookbook filled with exotic and delicious recipes, some of which, I grew up eating. My great-grandma Mary was a beautiful, loving, petit woman and one hell of a cook. Her parents were Lebanese yet she grew up in the States. I was extremely fortunate enough to know my great-grandma as more than just a bleary memory from early childhood. She didn’t pass away until I was well into college so I spent many days at her home and in her kitchen. She always had a bowl of olives sitting on the kitchen table much like other people have a dish of nuts for snacking. She threw egg shells into the garden which my cousin and I would merrily crunch into the earth with our shoes. There was a hanging basket in the kitchen never empty for the onions and garlic that filled it waiting to be cooked into something delicious by her delicate little hands. Her refrigerator was always full (partly due to my great-grandpa’s healthy appetite, I’m sure) and there was always something yummy for us to eat. Most American families gather to feasts of fried chicken, potato salad, pasta salad, hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and dips. We had that but also sitting there among the more typical BBQ fare was a colorful bowl of tabbouleh, dolmathes, and perhaps some kibbeh. All delicious and all homemade.
Before she passed, my great-grandma gave me that blessed cookbook. Not only did she sign it and tell me she loved me but she went through it and made her own little notes on many of the recipes. Additions, substitutions, omissions…it’s all there. Her special touch on typical recipes. For a gal who grew up eating all of this food but had no idea how any of it was made, this cookbook was one of the best gifts I will ever receive. My paternal grandmother, Mary’s daughter, continued the tradition of creating these beautiful dishes and now I’m doing my best to perfect them in order to keep them in the family. It’s also been a lot of fun to share these dishes with friends who have never tried them, let alone heard of them. Most recently, I made tabbouleh and dolmathes for a holiday party with co-workers. Most of them had never tasted these and all were pleasantly surprised.
I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to describe the taste of the dolmathes. There’s nothing else like them. Most people have probably eaten stuffed cabbage leaves but the taste of the actual grape leaf is completely different. It’s typical to find grape leaves sold in jars packed with a vinegar brine. This brine adds a very nice tang to the otherwise rich dolmathes filled with lamb. Mixed together in the dark chamber of your mouth, these flavors make your eyes pop and simultaneously melt closed with satisfaction. The tabbouleh is vibrant with lemon, herbs, juicy tomatoes, and crunchy cucumber. If dolmathes are like tea time, tabbouleh is cocktail hour.
Listed below are the recipes for both dishes as written in my cookbook with my great-grandma’s notes included. Which ingredients are original and which are my grandma’s secret touches? That’s for me to know and for you to enjoy.
1/4 cup cracked wheat (bulgur wheat)
2 medium ripe but firm tomatoes, diced
1 cup chopped scallions
2 large bunches of parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1/2 cucumber, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Place the bulgur in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 15-20 minutes or until the wheat is tender and no longer crunchy. Drain, pressing well, in a colander, then place in a mixing bowl.
Add the remaining ingredients, mix thoroughly.
This salad should be made one day in advance, ideally. The longer it sits and the flavors meld together the better it gets.
1 lb ground lamb
2 cans tomato sauce
1 cup white rice
salt and pepper
4-5 pieces of raw chicken drumsticks, thighs, or wings
1 jar of grape leaves
Place the chicken pieces on the bottom of a medium stock pot.
Combine the lamb, rice, and tomato sauce in a mixing bowl. Add some salt and pepper. Placing the smooth side of the grape leaf down, spoon 1 tablespoon full of the mix onto the leaf. Fold up the sides and roll up the leaf, enveloping the lamb mix. Place the rolled leaf seam side down into the pot on top of the chicken. Repeat with remaining grape leaves and lamb mix, piling them up in the pot. Add 1/2 inch-1 inch of water to the pot. Place a plate, face down, into the pot on top of the leaves to weigh them down. Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pot and let the dolmathes simmer and steam until done, 45-min to 1 hour. Cut one open to check for doneness. Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over the dolmathes in the pot and serve.
Note: I’ve had many dolmathes served cold and I’m not a big fan. Great-grandma always served hers hot right out of the pot and the heat made them almost melt in your mouth.