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Lamb for the Holidays

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

As many, if not most, of you know my father's side is from Syria (both Aleppo and Damascus). We take extreme pride not only in our family, but in the sacrifices we made to come to America. We have never let go of cultural things like our food. One such staple are grape leaves. Most people who have heard of grape leaves associate them with Dolma which is the Greek version. This version can be tasty but is extremely different from Syrian grape leaves because we use very little rice and far more stuffing of either meat or veggies.

There are 2 kinds of grape leaves: Warak Enab Syamy (Vegan/ Vegetarian) and Warak Enab Mishwy (meat). My mother was taught how to make these by my grandmother who also taught me. My mom and I used to make these together and she taught me the tricks she learned from my grandmother. While my mom may have done well to master the warak enab syamy (though a contest of flavor one year proved mine to be superior) she has not mastered the warak enab mishwy which is what I am writing about today.

What you'll need:

-2-3lbs leg of lamb taken off the bone, de-fatted and ground extremely fine (save the bones!)

- 1 large jar of grape leaves drained, run under very cold water and stems removed

- Leg of lamb bones cut into 1" pieces

- 5-10 lambs tongues cleaned

-3 heads of garlic sliced

- 1-2 bell peppers finely diced

- 4tbs Pomegranate molasses

- Allspice to taste

- Salt to taste

- 4 cups of lamb stock

- 1 Lemon

- 1 cup of rice soaked in boiling hot water to soften

- 2 small appetizer plates to weight things down

- 1 large dutch oven or pasta pot to cook

To start, make the lamb stock. If you can buy some from your local butcher that's awesome. We've taken to making ours and after many years of trying different versions, I've settled on Gordon Ramsay's recipe as the spices and flavors complement the grape leaves very nicely.

The next part is to clean the lambs tongues. Many people have tried beef tongues, but lambs tongues are extremely different. First, they are much smaller. Second, they are far easier to get tender and take less time to cook through. The tongues add a beautiful flavor to the grape leaves and give it a slightly gamey flavor that makes the dish.

Raw lambs tongues- before they are cleaned

The first thing you have to do is get a large pot of water fill it 80% water, 20% white vinegar and 2tbs salt. Once the water comes to a boil, add the tongues and cook until they turn white and the skin starts to curl up on the tongues.

Tongues when they are ready to start cleaning

When you are ready, drain the water and put the tongues in a bowl to start the cleaning process. The most important part of this is to clean then while they are hot otherwise it becomes extremely tough to get that out layer of skin off the tongues. You only want the meat inside.

To clean, you first want to cut that large base muscle off so that it's just the rounded tongue with the skin. That muscle is tough and doesn't add any flavor to the dish. Once that muscle is removed, take a pairing knife and slide it between the skin and the meat to start to separate them. You should be able to peel the skin off of the tongue if they have cooked long enough. If not, that's ok! You can just cut the skin off around the tongues until they are cleaned and do not resemble their original state. After these have been cleaned, you can place them in the fridge to sit while you make the hubbrah (lamb stuffing).

Cleaned lambs tongues

Take the ground lamb and place it in a bowl. If you are uncomfortable touching raw meat, I suggest wearing gloves as the best way to mix the meat is by hand. Add the allspice, salt, pomegranate molasses and bell pepper to the meat. Mix thoroughly and, if your comfortable, taste the meat to make sure it has enough of the flavors incorporated. Remember, since these are essentially boiled, the flavors will dramatically mellow out. With that in mind, it's important to have almost too much of these flavors before you roll the grape leaves and cook them.

Hubbrah (Lamb stuffing)

Once you have the flavor you want, take the rice and drain it making sure to squeeze any excess water from the rice. It should be somewhat soft but not cooked. Rice in grape leaves is like an egg wash on a pie. It's only there to tell you when the grape leaves are done. Add a few handfuls of the rice until you have as much rice as you'd like in the mixture. Taste again for final check on flavor then set up your rolling station. Also, make sure you place the cut up lamb bones in the center of the dutch oven as you'll be stacking the rolled grape leaves around them.

leg of lamb bones in the center of cooking pot

You should set up a large cutting board (preferably with ridges in it), the large dutch oven or pot to place the rolled leaves in, the lamb mixture, your sliced garlic, grape leaves cleaned, tongues and lamb stock on the table. take the grape leaves and lay them vein side up. add about 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon (depending on the size of the leaf) to the center.

Rolling station

When you start to roll, be patient and don't be afraid of ripping the leaves. Take the right side of the leaf and place it so the edge of it folds and is in the center of the leaf. Do the same with the left side.

Rolling and folding the sides

Then, fold the bottom up so that the edge also meets the center and start rolling the leaves as tightly as possible. Again, it's totally ok if they rip a bit and some of the stuffing pops out a little. Once rolled, start stacking them in the pot around the bones.

Rolling and stacking

Eventually, once everything is rolled, the bones will be covered. Any torn or badly shredded leaves, don't stuff those. Set those aside as they will come in handy later on. Now that you've rolled all the leaves and stacked them, place the lambs tongues on top. Then add all of the sliced garlic on top of that so that the whole top of the pot looks covered in garlic and tongues.

Rolled leaves with tongues and garlic

Next, pour the stock over everything.

Stock poured over the grape leaves

Cover the entire thing with any remaining or torn leaves so that it forms a beautiful layer over the whole pot and seals in all the flavor.

Covered with left over grape leaves

Place the 2 small appetizer plates on top to weigh everything down, then take your lemon, cut in half and squeeze the juice to cover the mixture.

Covering with lemon juice

Finally, pour water until the level is just over the leaves and covers most of the plate. Cover and bring to a boil. Once the water has boiled, leave the lid slightly ajar and then simmer for 10-15 min until the lamb and the rice is cooked completely.

Pot covered in water

Once it's done, remove the plates and the top layer of leaves that lay on top, take out your rolled leaves and serve with the tongues to enjoy!

Finished stuffed grape leaves

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