"This is my mother's recipe," Arax Hastratian says as she places a spoonful of spiced ground beef, chopped herbs, and rice in the center of a grape leaf. With ease and grace, she folds the sides of the leaf over the filling and rolls what may be her ten thousandth stuffed grape leaf.
Arax was born in Isfahan, the third largest city in Iran. She immigrated to the United States in 1979, arriving first in Fresno and eventually settling in Los Angeles with her husband and children. She is petite, warm, and bright, with a quick smile. She moves around her Glendale apartment in a youthful, almost jubilant fashion, and I can hardly believe she is a great-grandmother. But somewhere in her eyes there is a sense that she has known tragedy, that she has made it through more than a few hardships.
Her extended family -- four brothers and three sisters, plus their spouses and children -- also made their way from Iran to Glendale. The entire clan gets together for holidays and other celebrations. At weddings, sometimes there are 300 people from just one side. Her grandkids have more than 100 second cousins.
Arax lives alone, though that doesn't stop her from being a prolific home cook. She loves to make fried eggplant, red rice with spicy tomato paste and bell peppers, and kotlet, an Iranian beef patty made with onion, shredded potato, eggs, and garlic. "Every day I cook," she says, "then I call my family and ask them to come by."
After Arax finishes rolling and cooking four dozen stuffed grape leaves, she places the entire batch in a plastic container. I wonder which lucky granddaughter or son-in-law will be stopping by today. But then, to my absolute delight, she slips the container into my basket and insists that I take it home.
Arax Hasratian's Stuffed Grape Leaves
You could use grape leaves from a jar, but Arax prefers the taste of fresh leaves. She picks hers from a friend's garden. During mid-summer, you can often find them in Middle Eastern markets for less than $1 per pound.
Makes about 50
50 fresh grape leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bunch scallions, chopped
3 bunches cilantro, stemmed
3 bunches parsley, stemmed
1 bunch dill, stemmed
1 bunch chives
1 cup jasmine rice, rinsed
1½ pounds ground beef
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
½ cup canola oil
Juice of 2 lemons
Place the grape leaves in a bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Set aside to soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then drain.
Combine the garlic and scallions in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Blend until smooth, then add the cilantro, parsley, dill, and chives. Pulse until finely chopped. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and stir in the rice, beef, curry powder, salt, pepper, ¼ cup oil, and lemon juice. Using your hands, mix well.
Trim the stem from 1 grape leaf and lay the leaf, shiny-side down, in the palm of your hand. Center about 1 tablespoon of filling in the bottom one-third of the leaf and fold the stem side over the filling. Fold in both sides, laying them over the filling, then roll up towards the top edge to form a cigar shape. The leaf should be wrapped snugly but not too tightly because the rice will expand while it cooks. Repeat with remaining grape leaves and filling.
Place the stuffed grape leaves in a medium pot, arranging them side-by-side in a single, crowded layer and then stacking a second and, if necessary, a third layer on top. Pour in 1 cup of water and the remaining ¼ cup oil. Cook, covered, over low heat for 1 to 2 hours, until the stuffed grape leaves are tender. Serve warm.