While I know that the “new year” is an arbitrary moment in time, for Mr. Foodie and I, entering 2018 has felt like stepping off a pretty island into shark-infested waters. Thanks to the deep freeze that many of us are experiencing, the condensate pipe for our heater is freezing, causing water to leak, causing a huge ice river to flow down our garage door, causing our door to freeze shut, causing the cable to snap upon attempting to open it. And there is literally nothing to be done until the weather goes above freezing. Trust me, we’ve consulted with authorities, tried a pump, tried a heat coil, tried replacing the wet insulation, but the sad truth is that these crappy spec homes in NOVA are not meant to suffer this kind of weather for any length of time. On top of all that, listen to this: Over the holidays, we flew five planes, slept in five beds, went from 65 degrees to -30, and ate mainly potatoes for at least one of those weeks — all the while I felt totally fine; then we get home, launch into our first attempt at Whole 30, and one week in I catch a flipping head cold. So here I am sniffling, feverish, sorely deprived of sugar (meh) and cheese (crying face emoji), with a frozen garage door.
Since the last thing I feel like doing is cooking anything, I thought I’d at least blog about some more of the yummy things we ate while on vacation. Maybe remembering our awesome trip will snap me out of my funk.
Because we celebrated Christmas eve eve with my mother’s family, Mr. Foodie and I offered to make the dinner. My immediate family stayed at an airbnb house located near to my grandparents and it had a bangin’ kitchen, so we felt confident that we could tackle something as large as a holiday dinner there. We decided to cook everything except the turkey at the airbnb so as to minimize the chaos and mess at my grandparents’ house. In addition to the roasted veggies and mashed potatoes that everyone expected, we also made Diwali (the Palestinian term) or dolmas (the Greek term). These are grape leaves stuffed with mainly rice and meat, but you can also make them vegetarian, and everyone has their own preferences for seasoning. The best diwali I’ve ever had is my in-laws’ version which is grape leaves (taken off their own backyard grape vine) stuffed with either beef or lamb, rice, and seasoned with allspice; then cooked in a tomato broth. So this is the version that we set out to make.
In our early attempts to make diwali, Mr. Foodie and I quickly realized that store-bought grape leaves are a LOT different than fresh ones off the vine. The brand we had tried before leaving for vacation was from California, but they were clearly picked too late in the season as they were thick and tough. In SoCal, we figured we’d find the same kind of leaves at the generic grocery close to our house, but we got lucky and found imported ones from Greece – these turned out to be much softer and thinner than the CA leaves. We also got ground lamb, medium-grain rice, allspice, and butter. As we were checking out the cashier asked “why grape leaves?” And we told her we were making dolmas, and before I could explain what they were, she was like “really?! I’m Lebanese and I love diwali.” I love random moments of connectedness like that.
To make our version of diwali, rinse the leaves and pull them apart, taking care to not rip any of them, and stack them on a towel or in a colander. Mix softened butter, rice, ground meat, and salt, pepper, and allspice together in a bowl until combined. Now comes the labor intensive portion of the program, so we recommend putting on a film and grabbing a straw for your wine so you can sip periodically without using your hands because they’ll be busy 😉 . I asked Mr. Foodie if his family made this a lot when he was young, and he said he remembers his grandma roping him and the other boys into the process to make it go faster. I smiled at the thought of him as a young boy learning to roll the diwali by his grandma’s side. For my family dinner, we made a LOT of diwali, but for an average night, with two people rolling, it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to get through it.
Take a grape leaf off the stack and lay it down on a plate or table, veins up (trim off the stem if there is one – we didn’t have any stems to deal with on our Greek-imported leaves). Scoop a small amount of the meat mixture with your fingers or a spoon, and place at the bottom of the leaf. Roll the leaf forward, bringing in the sides of the leaf as you roll to create a nice, tight little cylinder. I am not specifying how much meat to place because this really depends on the size of the leaf in front of you. One thing I want to warn you about is over-stuffing the leaves. Remember that rice expands as it cooks. If you overpack the leaf, it will pop open during the cooking. I will say that on average, we were using 1-2 teaspoons of meat mixture per leaf – but really it varied a lot with the size of the leaves. Pack the finished diwali into the bottom of a stock pot, seam side down in a single layer, then start a new layer on top of that one and keep going until you’ve run out of meat mixture or leaves.
When ready to cook, add a 1/2 or whole can of tomato paste to a quart of water and pour over the diwali until just below the very top of the diwali (you can always add more water later on in the cooking or take the lid off and let it steam off if you’ve added too much – the point is you want there to be enough liquid to cook the diwali, but not so much that you end up with a grape leaf soup). Use a plate that fits inside the stock pot on top of the packed diwali to hold it down when you fill it with liquid. Cook for around 40 minutes (checking a diwali from the top layer for doneness since the top layer will cook last). Since we were preparing ahead of time, we poured the diwali into a foil pan for reheating later in the oven (although they taste SO good right out of the pot). As you can see, very few of our diwali popped open, so we did a good job not overfilling them this time 🙂
I was a little nervous that my midwestern family wouldn’t necessarily like these since they’re different than our usual holiday fare, but everyone loved them. The whole dinner was tasty and fun. We had lefse for dessert and finished the night with a while elephant gift exchange + a karaoke rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” lol
Azar Diwali w/ Lamb
1 lb Ground Lamb (or flank steak ground by processor)
1 C medium-grain rice
1/4 C softened, unsalted butter
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
1 teaspoon Allspice
1/2-1 can tomato paste
If using jarred grape leaves, wash thoroughly and peel apart, keeping them stacked on towels or in a colander. Cut any stems off the leaves at this time. Mix the meat, rice, softened butter, and seasonings in a bowl until combined. For each diwali, lay the leaf on the table, vein side up and spoon or pinch 1-2 teaspoons of meat mixture (depending on the size of the leaf) onto the bottom of the leaf, then roll the leaf upwards, tucking in the sides as you go. Take care not to overstuff each leaf or they will pop during cooking. Pack the finished diwali into the bottom of a stock pot, seam sides down, in one layer before moving to other layers. When all are done, pour a mixture of water and tomato paste (1/2 can or whole can depending on how much diwali you’re make) over the diwali until it just reaches the top layer of diwali. Cover the diwali with a plate that fits inside the pot to keep them packed down so they don’t float, and cover the pot with a lid. Bring to a boil and then simmer until done (around 40 min – check one from the top layer for doneness). If the water level drops too far, add more water. If the water level is too high toward the end of cooking, remove the lid and let it steam off for a few minutes to bring the water level down. Use tongs to remove diwali to a plate or bowl; drizzle some tomato broth on top of each serving for more flavor.