Jackie Ganim-DeFalco’s Stuffed Grape Leaves
Cooking can connect generations faster than a photo album.
Anyone cooking from a family recipe has considered their grandmother’s hands kneading the dough, the bowl of berries in her lap, the air in her kitchen punched with aromatics. We imagine our own hands mimicking our relative’s, and our muscles respond. We imagine our grandmother picking all those tiny stems off the gooseberries, and we become more patient with the bowl in our lap. We time travel when we imagine our kitchens smelling as warmly exotic as our great-grandmother’s must have when the seeds toasted or the peppers singed. We feel that person in each step of the tattered recipe’s directions, even a relative too distant to have met.
Some of those worn recipe cards just don’t say enough.
The slip of paper might be missing exactly how soft the onions should be or at what thickness to stop reducing a sauce. How it looks and smells can only be told by the person who was there when it was stirred or who tried it warm from the oven.
I was cooking with a friend recently, Stephanie Cornell who had lived for years in South Korea. We were making Pajeon, a Korean pancake. Stephanie said, “you follow the recipe and I’ll tell you if it tastes right.”
Sometimes making a recipe work properly just means you have to have been there to eat it.
Recently, Jacqueline Ganim-DeFalco, who was there by her grandmother’s side, taught a few of us the secrets of making her family’s Lebanese stuffed grape leaves. This is exactly one of those recipes that can really only be taught by someone who has watched her own grandmother roll and stack these bundles, and who has eaten them warm from the pot with leben, the Arabic word for yogurt.
Most people from the Cape Ann community know Ganim-DeFalco as a marketing professional, an arts organizer, and a jewelry designer. The Wearable Art Show, seArts, Cape Ann Artisans, her resume reads like a “what’s happening” list for Cape Ann. Ganim-DeFalco also designs and crafts her own line of beach glass jewelry, Cape Ann Designs, and she works as a business and marketing advisor.
But in late June, Ganim-DeFalco led her friends to the Cape Ann places where the best grape leaves grow for rolling and stuffing. She teaches her friends what to look for — light-colored young leaves, pale green on each side, about 5 – 6" in width. She and her friends harvest the leaves and freeze them, waiting for a winter day, as she did recently, to pull out her grandmother’s recipe.
“I wish so much that I had a photo of me and my wonderful grandmother in her kitchen. She so inspired me with her cooking! She was my sithe (Arabic for grandma), my dad’s 4'9" mother who lived in the kitchen,” Ganim-DeFalco says. “Her real name was Angela (Nacknouk) Ganim. She and my grandfather, Charles, came to America when they were around ten or eleven years old.”
Ganim-DeFalco says her grandparents eventually landed in Utica, New York, but later would visit their son’s family — Ganim-DeFalco’s father — in Buffalo, “with trunks full of food.”
“What I learned from my grandmother was to acquire the ‘taste’ for the food. I find with international cooking, you have to know what the end product is supposed to look and taste like,” again that rule, “you make it and I’ll tell you if it tastes right.”
“My mother and I have systematically always made an event out of picking grape leaves every June and freezing them,” Ganim-DeFalco says. Her mother, Rita, who is Italian, gets extra credit for keeping her mother-in-law’s traditions alive. She took time early in her marriage to learn many of the Ganim recipes.
The lessons from Ganim-DeFalco’s sithe endured, serving as a thread that would connect the granddaughter to new friendships. In college, Ganim-DeFalco became best friends and sorority sisters with a Lebanese-American student. The two of them regularly prepared Lebanese meals in the Kappa condo kitchen. On Cape Ann Ganim-Defalco has connected with the Lebanese American community. She’s made Lebanese feasts to benefit the Cape Ann Symphony and shown off her family’s traditions in a local gourmet club.
I confess that I like almost any kind of stuffed grape leaf, from the totally flaccid Trader Joe’s variety to handcrafted rolls, but this recipe is probably the most delicious and interesting I’ve ever tried. It includes lamb mixed with either beef or pork, your choice, and cumin and cinnamon, along with rice, etc. The meat here seems unusual. Most stuffed grape leaf recipes I know are simply rice, herbs and heavy on lemon juice. The combination of meats and spice taste heady but not strong, deliciously exotic. I don’t have a sithe, but I know what one’s kitchen smells like.
A few grape leaf tips:
Pick them in June, when the leaves are fresh, light green, shiny and smooth. Ganim-DeFalco says to pick the leaves from wild plants that have no grapes and are green on both sides, so look to see if there are grape cluster stems from last fall’s crop. If there are, find another spot.
Avoid thick, fuzzy leaves.
Pick leaves that are approximately 5 – 7" in width.
Of course, no torn leaves and no holes or bugs. The best ones grow a few leaves down from the top growth, which receives all the sun, and therefore tend to get tough.
Freeze the leaves as they are (no washing) in a plastic bag or a plastic tub where they can lay flat (1½ pounds of grape leaves equal approximately 100 – 120 leaves). When ready to use, remove leaves from the freezer, and blanch them as you are ready to roll them for 1 minute in salted, simmering water. They do not hold up well out of the freezer, so try to use them quickly.
Lastly, if you do not have access to fresh leaves you can purchase them brined in jars. Simply rinse them briefly under cool water before using.
Here are some lessons from our day together, a recipe, and short videos, including those tips that never get written down. “If a leaf has a hole, patch it; never waste a grape leaf.”
Jacqueline Ganim-DeFalco’s Traditional Stuffed Grape Leaves
[Makes 60-75 rolls]
1½ – 2 pounds of ground beef or lamb (or a combination). With lamb, err on the side of more meat due to shrinkage
1 pound of uncooked rice (or just 2 cups)
2 Tablespoons of melted butter
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoons cumin
A handful fresh mint, chopped
1 12 oz can tomato sauce (divided), ½ can goes into the filling and ½ can goes in later to make the “zoom” or sauce
Extra leaves — either broken or torn that you can’t use — for lining the bottom of the pot
Olive oil for drizzling on top
Lemon juice for drizzling on top
Full-fat yogurt for serving
In a large bowl mix all ingredients by hand, including ½ of the can of tomato sauce. (Reserve the second ½ can for later.) .
Lay leaf flat and put enough meat and rice to make a small cigar, approximately 3" x 1" x 1". Roll tightly. (See video.)
Oil a 4-quart lidded stock pot or sauce pan. Line the bottom with the broken leaves or extras you have saved to keep rolls from sticking. Starting in a ring around the perimeter, begin laying the rolls end to end. Pack them very tightly, about 20 – 25 a layer, as this helps them stay closed. Ideally, pack two layers, at the most three, in the pot. It’s very important to pack them tightly to keep them rolled.
Add the second ½ can of tomato sauce and enough water to just reach the top of stack. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste. Find a plate that fits snugly in the pot to cover the grape leaves. This helps hold them down and keeps them from opening.
Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, or until top leaves are tender and rice is cooked. Remove pan from heat, uncover, and remove the plate. Remove one roll and cut into it to make sure it’s cooked. If not, return the plate, lid, and cook longer.
When they are cooked, they are easy to freeze. Just pop in the microwave to reheat. Serve warm with leben (full-fat plain yogurt).