A wonderful childhood memory of my grandmother – Sito, as she is known in Lebanese – is of her bringing my brother and I behind the neighbourhood swimming pool to pick grapevine leaves to make Yabrek, stuffed grapevine leaves. Although the ultimate payoff was the mouth-watering fingers of lamb meat we would feast on later that evening, also tantalizing to our young tastebuds was to nibble on the new vine shoots, shaped like curly-cues, which often had a sweet flavour to them.
I’ve searched the internet for years to find a recipe that was a close match to the Yabrek I remembered from my childhood. After many trials, my mother finally came across the secret ingredient – rhubarb – which, when added to the cooking pot, adds a distinct sweet flavour that is unmistakeable.
50 fresh grapevine leaves or 1 15oz. can of preserved leaves
1 Lb. lean ground lamb or beef
1/2 cup rice (I use basmati)
Juice from 1 lemon
1-2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground pepper, cinnamon and allspice
1. Prepare the grapevine leaves. If using fresh leaves, soak in boiling water for 10 minutes to soften. If using preserved, soak in warm water for 45 minutes, replacing water several times to remove brine.
2. In a bowl, mix ground lamb or beef, rice, spices and lemon juice. Add a tsp. of warm water to make filling soft, if desired.
3. Line a large saucepan with a few of the grapevine leaves.
4. Place 1 tbsp. of filling (more if leaf is bigger) at the base of each leaf, ensuring that the leaf is vein-side up. Roll up a small amount, tucking in the sides, then roll until the end. Place seam side down in saucepan.
5. Place rolled leaves in layers in the saucepan, drizzle with lemon juice and more salt. If desired, place roughly chopped rhubarb into the pot, to add flavour. Place inverted plate or pie plate on top of leaves whiles cooking, to keep them intact.
6. Add 1-2 cups of water, until it is half way up the pot. Cover saucepan and boil over medium. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour.
7. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with yogourt or melted butter.