Hard Work for a Late Sunday Lunch: Wrapped Grape Leaves (Zeytinyağlı Sarma)

One of the greatest things about going to the afternoon get-togethers with my grandma happened to be about food. Of course, the attention I got from the ladies topped my list as well since there was rarely any other kid than me and my brother.

These ladies knew (still do) how to cook! The menu was always similar as I mentioned in other posts : Pogaca, borek, cake, kurabiye (cookie/scones) , and sometimes, depending on how much time the hostess had in hand the day before, wrapped grape leaves which we call sarma. Some ladies actually can make each piece identical in size and thickness…it is just crazy! These lemony pieces take appreciable amount of time to make. When it shows up on the menu, everyone knows that it is extra special because somebody took the time to individually wrap each piece.

One bad thing about these suckers though, people eat them quickly, one after another. So after you spend all the time rolling, wrapping and cooking, people finish it in five minutes! That is the only annoying part of it as a cook. Especially in our house, my uncle and my brother would go through them pretty quickly, so I had to join the race if I wanted a piece. The result: Overfed people with stomach aches! And some upset people who could not eat as much because they were slow! AKA Losers!

You can purchase grape leaves either in a jar or in vacuumed packages. Make sure you pay attention to the expiration date. If it is getting close to that date, the leaves might be very soft after standing in brine for too long and you might have hard time wrapping without tearing them. If you tear two leaves, you can always try to overlap them and use them as one leaf.It helps to soak the leaves in water for five minutes or so to get rid of the excess salt.

The filling is made with rice, pinenuts, currants, lots of onion and herbs. Onion is the key for a soft feeling filling. For herbs, I used dried dill weed, and dried mint but it is much better with a big bunch of fresh dill chopped in it. After I clean the currants by picking the stems, I normally soak them in warm water, dry over paper towel and gently mix them in after the rice is cooked. I have seen it added to the rice at the beginning of cooking in their dry forms as well. So whatever you feel comfortable with it. Another optional thing is the finely diced ripe tomato. Again, I have seen it either way, and this time I decided to add it.And I always keep extra small green or red bell peppers handy in case I have extra rice filling. I hollow them out and stuff with the filling as well.

The ladies at the get-togethers of my grandma were really polite ladies, they would take one or two on their plate and that was it. But if you have hungry men with big appetite at home like we had, I would say put a limit on the number of sarma each person is allowed to eat per minute. And if they eat more than that, just slap their hand. These little things are hugely addictive.

Afiyet Olsun!

Wrapped Grape Leaves (Zeytinyağlı Sarma)

Adapted from Classic Turkish Cooking by Alga Algar and from my phone conversations with my Grandma, Emine

  • 1 cup of rice (washed once or twice to get rid of starch)
  • 3/4 cup of olive oil plus 2 tablespoon more
  • 4 cups of finely chopped yellow onion (food processor comes handy and saves you tears)
  • 5 tablespoons of pinenuts
  • 1 medium sized finely diced peeled tomato (with its juice)
  • 3 tablespoons dry mint (or 1/3 packed cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves)
  • 4 tablespoon dry dill (or one big bunch of fresh dill)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup of currants
  • 3 tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cups of water
  • Grape leaves and some extra bell peppers in case of extra filling
  • Lemon slices and mint leaves for garnish

1. Soak currants in warm water for ten minutes. Drain, let them dry on paper towel.

2. Heat olive oil in a big pan over medium-high heat.

3. Add onion and pinenuts. Stir frequently for about 15-20 minutes until onions are soft and translucent.

4. Add rice, stir for another minute or two.

5. Add mint, dill and tomato. Stir for another five minutes.

6. Add all the spices except currants. Stir to combine.

7. Mix 1 cup of water and 2 tablespoon of lemon juice. Add to the pot, bring it a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low.

8. Cover and cook until rice absorbs all water.

9. After rice is cooked, add currants, gently stir and let it cool. Take grape leaves out of their package, soak them for five minutes to wash of the salt.

10. Gently, separate each leaf from the stack, set it on the cutting board, and cut out the little stem on top but use the whole leaf for wrapping.

11. Put a heaping teaspoon or so on the leaf and wrap it. You might have to adjust the filling amount based on the leaf size to be able to wrap comfortably. Click here for the wrapping procedure.

12. Place them on the bottom of the pan, finish one layer. Then place the remaining sarma as a second layer.

13. Mix 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 2 tablespoon of olive oil. Pour over sarmas.

14. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat and let it simmer for 30 min or until the leaves are cooked. Check the water level in the pan and add hot water if necessary.

15. Once it cools down, place them on a platter an garnish them with lemon slices and mint leaves. Serve with more lemon juice if you like the sour taste.





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