This recipe is so dear to my heart. Hands down, my favorite dish, the one thing I can relish at any given time, and never grow tired of, is a plate of hot, juicy, lemony vine leaves filled with a flavorful, herbed, rice mixture. This recipe is completely vegetarian, and a wonderful plant based meal to add to the menu. An aromatic rice seasoned with several green herbs, tomato paste, garlic and onions is stuffed carefully into a flavorful lemony brined grape leaf. Stuffed grape leaves have a myriad of titles depending on the country they are made in: dolma, sarma, waraq ‘enab, yabraq, dolmades, and our simple Egyptian title- mahshy.
Mahshy in Arabic literally means stuffed, and while we make many varieties of stuffed vegetables, the main ones being peppers, eggplants, baby zucchini, and grape leaves, the simple mahshy refers to the quintessential grape leaf rolled up tight with a juicy filling of aromatic rice tucked gently inside.
As many names there are for this dish, there are also endless recipes and fillings influenced not only by their region of origin but by the grandmas and generations of home chefs who lovingly rolled these and served them up. The Egyptian recipe is usually a vegetarian filling and does not use any meat, although many people now add minced meat as is done in the Levant regions. Sometimes I add meat too, but I rarely do because this dish is perfectly delicious without any meat (not to mention healthier and easier to make). The combination of short grain rice with fresh parsley, dill, cilantro and dried mint is seasoned with cumin, minced garlic and onions, tomato paste, and olive oil. The perfect amount of filling is very carefully tucked into the leaf and then rolled tightly to ensure a juicy result once cooked. I find that rolling these leaves small and tight is half the success of this recipe. If they are loose or large, you do not achieve the juicy stuffing. The cooking liquid is also very important as this marinates the leaves and infuses the entire pot with flavor. I use lots of lemon juice, tomato paste, some spices, chicken broth or lamb broth and let them cook nice and slow.
How to cook stuffed grape leaves
Every recipe involves some method of stacking the rolled leaves in a pot and covering with a flavorful broth. I have experimented so much with broths, meat on the bottom, potatoes on the bottom, vines on the bottom, pressure cooking, simmering with a weight on top, and baking in the oven. Being an avid mahshy eater, from a variety of homes and regions, I can assure you I have a fairly good summary for impeccable results. They are all simply delicious methods, but here is my favorite method and combination of strategies:
- While the Egyptian grape leaves are filled with a vegan mixture, we do cook it in some broth. I either pour on chicken broth into the sauce, or to get extra fancy and to my children’s delight, line the bottom of the pot with lamb chops. The bone is important- it releases flavorful broth in the cooking liquid in lieu of chicken broth. I prefer any cut of beef with bone to lamb, but my kids love lamb. Lamb in the pot is also traditional to the Syrian and Lebanese recipes I grew up enjoying and absolutely LOVE.
- Always line the bottom of the pot with thickly sliced potatoes. Always. These are a favorite for all. They soak up all that tangy sauce flavor, and protect your precious hand rolled grape leaves from scorching. Throw in some tomato slices too for lovely color and extra flavor. The cuts of meat, if using, can go in between the potato slices or underneath them.
- Use lots of garlic. I layer the bottom of the pot with potatoes and meat on top of olive oil that was simmering on low with sliced or minced garlic. Also sprinkle sliced garlic between the layers of grape leaves.
- Simmer the pot of leaves on the stove top (in an oven proof pot such as an enameled cast iron Staub) for a good 30 minutes to get them tender. Then transfer the pot to the oven at 400 degrees (f) for 20 minutes to get everything nicely charred and crispy. Everyone who has tried these absolutely love it. The smoky flavor, the crispy charred leaves, and other vegetables get so perfectly cooked this way.
- I always throw in rolled onions and stuffed zucchinis into the same pot of grape leaves. This started by mistake because I would always have extra rice- but I find that these help hold the grape leaves in place and they don’t unravel! I don’t need to use a weight. The rolled onions also lend to the flavorful broth, of course. Iraqi dolma is amazing and almost always features rolled onions. You can find my method for stuffing zucchinis and other veggies here.
Where do I find grape leaves?
You’ll be surprised to find that grape leaves are readily available on vines for the pocking. Where I grew up in Michigan, they were growing plentiful behind our school, and we would pick some to cook at home. I would be with some friends in the car, and the lady who drove us home would pull over on the road when she spotted a vine to pick some leaves! headed to a vineyard? Ask if you can collect some leaves! I quickly learned how to identify the leaves (see my picture below). You can also simply plant a grape plant in your yard- and it will take off proliferously before you know it! Just pick a plant with a small, smooth leaf. If you aren’t interested in picking your leaves (which you really ought to do at least once in your life!) you can conveniently find a jar of brined grape leaves at an International market or Middle Eastern grocer. Simply rinse and drain them before using.
How do I roll the grape leaves?
If you use leaves from a jar, simply rinse well and let them drain. I used to simmer and blanch, but I find this step to be unnecessary. When using fresh leaves, simply wash, and you may opt to blanch them in boiling salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. When I say blanch, I mean do not leave them in for more than 2 minutes! If the leaves get too soft, you wont be able to roll them. This blanching of fresh leaves will make the leaves a little bit more flexible and infuse the leaves with the delicious brined flavor.
To roll the leaves, you simply lay the smooth side down on a plate, with the rough vines facing upward. Cut off any thick stems- they are undesirable in the mouth when eating mahshy. Set a small teaspoon of stuffing in the center in a narrow line. The size of this stuffing is generally how large the rolled grape leaf will be. Fold up the sides, then roll up, carefully tucking in the sides as you rollup the wider part of the leaf. If the leaf is particularly huge, cut it in half. All the rolled leaves should come out about the same size. Stack them into the pot (on top of all those potato slices of course!) in a circular fashion until you’ve made a complete layer. Wedge in some garlic slices between a few grape leaves and continue to the next layer. This is a 1 hour long (or more!) project that entails sitting back, turning on your favorite film or soap opera or an afternoon with friends and family rolling and chatting together! I find it therapeutic to sit back and watch my shows while rolling away. It’s the most productive way to binge watch TV 😀
Stuffed Grape Leaves (Mahshy)
- Use of a large cast iron pot is recommended
- 2 lbs grape leaves rinsed and drained
Bottom of the pot
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 5 cloves of garlic, sliced or minced
- 1 lb bone in lamb chops or beef loin OMIT FOR VEGAN RECIPE
- 3 medium potatoes, sliced 3/4 inch thick
- 2 tomatoes, sliced 1 inch thick
For the stuffing
- 2 cups short grain rice, washed and soaked for 20 minutes I use Egyptian rice, sushi rice works well too
- 1 bunch parsley, minced stems removed
- 1 bunch dill, minced stems removed
- 1/2 bunch cilantro, minced
- 1 tbsp dry mint
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 2 tbsp minced garlic
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
For the cooking sauce
- 4 cups water
- 1 c chicken broth if not using meat pieces USE VEGETABLE BROTH FOR VEGAN RECIPE
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 5 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 2 fresh lemons, juiced 1/2-1 cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp salt
- pinch of black pepper
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Wash the grape leaves and rinse them clean. Set aside to drain. If using fresh picked leaves, blanch in boiling, salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar for 1-2 minutes. Allow to cool before handling.
- In a large pot, add the oil and garlic slices over very low heat. Allow the garlic to infuse the oil, then gently lay down the meat pieces, if using. Layer the potatoes evenly along the bottom as well.
- Turn up the heat and sear the meat and potatoes on one side. Turn over each piece, and turn off the heat. Place the tomato slices if using.
- Combine all the stuffing ingredients in a medium bowl.
- Take one leaf at a time, smooth side down, and fill the leaf with about 1 tsp of stuffing in a line along the bottom where the stem was removed.
- Fold up the bottom sides and slowly roll upward, keeping a tight roll and folding up the sides as you go. Place the rolled leaf in the pot, with the seam side down. Continue with all the grape leaves, creating an even layer of rolled leaves before starting a second layer. Wedge the garlic slices for the cooking sauce in between rolled leaves, and between layers. If using stuffed zucchinis or onions, wedge these in between leaves in the top and bottom layers, as it holds all the stuffed grape leaves in place.
- Once all the stuffing is complete, combine all the cooking sauce ingredients except the olive oil and mix well. Pour evenly all over the pot, covering all the mahshy. Drizzle the olive oil evenly on top.
- Set the pot on the stove on medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes. Be sure to add water, if it dries up or the mahshy will burn on the bottom. Preheat the oven to 400 as this cooks.
- Once the mahshy has simmered for 20-30 minutes, set the pot into the oven, on the middle rack, uncovered. Be sure you can see enough sauce from the top, or it will burn and dry out. Drizzle more olive oil on top, and set some lemon slices as garnish. The lemons look gorgeous once roasted!
- Remove the pot after 15-20 minutes, ensuring it never dries out of liquid. Enjoy hot with yogurt sauce and pita bread!
Any Amazon products I link in my posts come from my personal use and recommendations. As an Amazon associate, I earn commission from qualifying purchases.