I made two roast chickens with sliced eggplant, white beans in tomato sauce, rice, a tomato and cucumber salad, stuffed grape leaves with an artichoke and lemon sauce (see below), and a platter of sliced fruit and cookies from TJ’s. Charles and I loaded the pots and platters in the back of the Subaru and drove to Perli’s house with our movable feast. When we got there, Tom, Perli’s husband, came out to help us carry stuff in. “Bring in anything that smells good,” I said.
Parents served their kids, who ate out on the patio, and adults took seats around the dining room table. The guests covered more ethnic diversity than some people see in a lifetime. Among us we were Filipino, Armenian, Argentinian, Basque, Syrian, African-American, Southern, and a couple of Euro-hybrids. I said the Hebrew blessing for the food, to place a frame around the meal, and explained that these were traditional Syrian-Jewish recipes I'd gotten from my grandma -- foods I’d eaten as a kid but that I didn’t learn to cook until I’d moved to Santa Fe in my 20s. After our son was born, I said, I yearned for more connection to the family I’d fled without looking back a few years before. Grandma’s recipes provided a way in.
“That’s exactly how it was for me,” Perli said, a striking comment given that our backgrounds are so different. Perli is Filipina, and she grew up in a large Filipino community in Virginia Beach, where cultural identity could be taken for granted. “A third of my high school was Filipino, a third African-American, and a third white," she said. "There were always parties, and everyone always made foods from their family. Then I moved to New Mexico and got married and had children, and I wanted to share some of those foods. Learning to make traditional dishes and teach my kids is a way to bring that community and culture into my family.”
Variations on that theme bounced around the table. Solange came here from Argentina. “I need to cross borders,” she said. She claims that Andres, her husband, is the better cook, but she and her children make Argentinian empanadas for a taste of home. Lisa learned to cook the exotic Basque foods of her husband’s heritage. Our family's journeys (willful or otherwise; remember, one of the guests was African-American) varied as much as our foods. We were unified by diversity.
Grandma never actually made these grape leaves with artichoke and lemon (as far as I know); she made hers the more traditional way with ground beef and rice, topped with apricots and tamarind sauce -- that's for another post. I adapted this version from Poopa Dweck's Aromas of Aleppo, for Perli's vegetarian guests. I had stuffed the grape leaves earlier in the summer and put them in the freezer (through step 1). If you want to save time you could purchase canned dolmas -- now available from many mainstream and ethnic groceries -- and jump to step two, as the distinguishing factor is the combo of lemon, mint and garlic. Just don't tell Grandma.
Stuffed Grape Leaves with Artichoke & Lemon
Chop 2-4 onions and sauté in olive oil until translucent. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in a half cup pine nuts, 1 to 2 bunches of parsley, a pinch of red pepper, 1 teaspoon allspice, 3-4 chopped garlic, 3 chopped tomatoes and a cup of parboiled rice (cooked in half the usual amount of water; they'll be about half-cooked and will continue cooking after stuffed).
Unroll the grape leaves and soak for several minutes in cold water, then rinse several times to wash off the salt. Spread out a few grape leaves at a time on a clean work surface, with the wide end closest to you. Cut off the stem. Place a spoonful of filling, shaped like a fat finger, about two inches wide, across the leaf near the stem. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling, then roll it up tightly. It should look like a little cigar. Repeat till you’ve used up your filling. You can freeze them at this point and cook later.
Drizzle a tablespoon or so olive oil in the bottom of a large. Place 6-10 whole garlic cloves on the bottom of the pan. Layer two cans of artichoke hearts (water-packed, not the marinated ones) on the garlic, then layer the stuffed grape leaves on the artichokes. Drizzle another 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the grape leaves. Cover the grape leaves with a heat-proof plate to weigh them down so they don’t unravel.
Cook over a low flame for 5 minutes, just until the grape leaves start to moisten. Remove the plate, and add the juice of 6 lemons (about a cup – fresh, by all means), 1 tablespoon dried mint, 1 teaspoon salt, and enough water to cover the grape leaves. Cover again with the plate. Cook over medium-high heat until the sauce comes to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pan, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Remove from the heat. Let stand for a few minutes to allow the grape leaves to tighten before serving.
Lay a serving plate over the top of the saucepan and hold it firmly in place as you invert the saucepan carefully, so the artichokes are arranged on top of the grape leaves. Serve hot, cold or room temperature.