I learned this on the balcony in Kayfoun. My grandmother sat facing the sun. My aunt came to find me. “Tayta is coring the zucchini. You can learn from her,” she said.
Heritage is as much nostalgia as tradition. I sat at one corner of Tayta’s small table and she pointed at the ingredients, naming them one at a time. “Riz, benadoura, cousa, wara’ ‘anab, milleh . . .” We never could communicate in sentences, but we both spoke food in any language.
I used to regret that I was unable to hold a conversation with my grandmother as an adult. Looking back at these recipes resolves that guilt. We spoke on many occasions with fluency. Later, we digested our words together over newspaper tablecloths and with room temperature soda.
Sharing in the making of a meal, the paying forward of legacy with the warmth of familial love. . . It’s the kind of perfection I hope to pass on to another generation.
Please be aware this recipe makes enough to feed at least 14. Meals in Lebanon include extended family, friends and neighbors.
30 small zucchinis
60-80 grape leaves
3 tbsp tomato paste, or more to taste
3 tbsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
You will need a zucchini corer, a colander and a large, flat working surface to prep this meal.
2 cups long grain white rice, washed
1 lb ground beef or beef/lamb mixture, browned
2 tsp of salt or to taste
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Mix ingredients together and place in a strainer over a large bowl so that any excess water can seep out.
For the zucchini:
1. Wash and core the zucchini so that there is a hole wide enough for a small pinky to fit into.
2. Stuff the zucchini with the rice and meat mixture by pushing the stuffing in with your pinky until there is just enough room for the tip of your pinky to fit in the zucchini.
For the grape leaves:
1. Remove all stems from the grape leaves. This step can be done before or after step two.
2. This step is necessary for both packaged or fresh grape leaves. Fill a pan with water and bring to a light boil. Take a stack of several (8-10) washed grape leaves and boil them in this water on each side for about ten seconds. Remove from the water and place in a strainer to drain. Repeat for all leaves.
3. Lay each leaf flat and place a teaspoon or tablespoon, depending on the size of the leaf, in the center. Begin rolling by bringing the bottom of the leaf over the top of the mixture. Then fold both sides in, then roll the leaf the rest of the way up fairly tightly, but not so tightly that the expanding rice will break through the leaf when it cooks. Repeat until all leaves are stuffed and rolled.
Sometimes it is helpful to tie a stack of the stuffed grape leaves together with a small string or thread. This helps the leaves to keep from opening or breaking while they cook. My aunt calls these groups “dynamite.”
Warm oil and tomato paste in the bottom of a large pot. Add salt and enough water to dissolve the tomato paste, maybe 1/2 to 1 cup. Mix together and line the bottom of the pot with zucchini, then add the groups of grape leaves. Add the rest of the zucchini in and around the grape leaves. Add enough water to cover the top of the zucchini. Cover and bring to a boil. Cook until rice is done and zucchini is soft. Add more salt as desired.
*These can be made and cooked separately by halving the filling, tomato paste and water.