Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stuffed grape leaves and a Nasr-ed-Din story

Lucia’s fourth birthday is today. I asked her what she wanted to bring to class for the special snack, and she said, “Grape leaves.” I made a batch of stuffed grape-leaves from a modified recipe in Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle-Eastern Food. The bare-bones, least-you-need-to-know recipe for stuffed grape-leaves is this:

1) Cook 1 1/3 cups rice (I prefer brown).
2) Sprinkle your favorite yummy savory spices and herbs in it, plus a little olive oil and lemon-juice. Toss in a handful of pine-nuts, too, if you have them.
3) Wrap portions of the rice in grape-leaves from a jar pickled in brine.
4) Cover stuffed grape leaves lightly with olive oil and let them mellow for a few days.

You can get fancier than that, if you like. Go wild. Here is a link with photos on how to roll the grape-leaves. I rolled them a bit differently because I was in a hurry and thought I didn't need to consult the directions.

There are three reasons why The New Book of Middle-Eastern Food is my favorite cookbook. The first reason involves the delicious, easy-to-follow recipes: megeddarah (lentils, rice and caramelized onions), spinach pies, dolma (stuffed grape leaves), lahma bi ajeen (meat tarts), and more. Some recipes may take time to make, but they are rarely complicated. Some of the recipes are definitely meant to be made in a community setting: pinching the dough together for a plethora of spinach pies is much more enjoyable when people have conversations.

The second reason why The New Book of Middle-Eastern Food is my favorite cookbook involves the folktales and anecdotes scattered throughout. For example, here is the story called “The Loan of a Cauldron,” taken from Tales of Nasr-ed-Din Khoja, translated by Henry D. Barnham:

One day the Khoja asked a neighbor for the loan of a cauldron. After he had done with it, he put a small saucepan inside and took it back to the owner. When the man saw the small saucepan, he said, “What is this?” and the Khoja answered, “Your cauldron has had a baby.”

“That’s good news!” said the man, and accepted it with pleasure.

Another day the Khoja wanted to borrow the cauldron again and took it home with him.

The owner waited a long time, but he noticed that the cauldron did not come back. Then he went round to the Khoja and knocked at his door. When the Khoja came and asked what he wanted, he answered, “I want that cauldron.”

“Accept my sincere condolences!” said the Khoja, “the cauldron is dead!”

“What!” said his neighbor in the greatest amazement—“dead? Whoever heard of a cauldron dying?”

“Strange!—strange!” replied the Khoja. “You could believe that the cauldron had a baby, and yet you do not believe that it could die!”

You’ll find variations of this story all over the Middle-East, in both Muslim and Jewish cultures. I first learned it as “Yankel the Schnorer (Yiddish for ‘moocher’) and Lazeh the Miser.”

The third reason why The New Book of Middle-Eastern Food is my favorite is because the original edition was a family mainstay. My father's mother cooked from it, my mother cooked from it, and now I cook from it. Someday, Lucia shall cook from it. At least, I presume so, since she likes so many of the things I make from the cookbook.

Happy Birthday, dear Lucia! I hope your classmates at least take a taste of the stuffed grape leaves.


Lady K said...

Happy birthday to Lucia!!! Those stuffed grape leaves sound/look delicious! I've never had them, but now I want to try 'em.

HipWriterMama said...

Happy Birthday Lucia! So which birthday song are you going to sing today?

If you have a great Spinach Pie recipe, would you please share it with me? Everything I've tried isn't as tasty as I remember from this restaurant I frequented when I was in college. Thanks!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

HipWriterMama: I'll email you my recipe from the cookbook. If I get around to making the spinach pies any time soon, I'll post the recipe for general consumption.

Which birthday song? Both!

Lady K: Stuffed grape leaves vary from recipe to recipe. I recommend trying them at a restaurant that specializes in Greek or Middle-Eastern food.

limpy99 said...

What, no stuffed camel!?

goddess of clarity said...

Happy birthday, Lucia! What a sophisticated kid. How wonderful to bring in dolmas when all your classmates are expecting cupcakes or something.

I have a summer birthday, and was always jealous that I didn't have the chance to bring in cupcakes for the class and get a construction paper crown to wear. No one in 1970s Levittown would have thought to bring in grape leaves though, and we were so much the poorer for it.

Lone Star Ma said...

Happy Birthday to Lucia! Four - wow.

Delicious-sounding treat and cool story!