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Stella’s Stuffed Grape Leaves

Out of all of my mother’s wonderful dishes, the one I long for most in this present moment is stuffed grape leaves. While living in Europe, I have had more time to reflect on my family history. My great-grandmother Stella was a caring Romanian woman with Northern Greek ancestry who taught my mother how to make stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades, and for that I am very thankful. Every time my mother cooked this dish for my family growing up, she would recall her grandmother’s detailed instructions and serve it to us with love. Having learned this recipe from my mother, I hope to pass this culinary treasure on to my own family in the future. Stuffed grape leaves cannot be forgotten; they must be enjoyed by future generations.

Dolmades embody a pop of multiple flavors that fuse together to make a wonderfully hearty dish. Lying within the grape leaves is a ground beef, onion, and rice mixture that is seasoned with dill and parsley, sporting an herbaceous kick and soft texture. The meat flavor does not stand alone, though, as the tender grape leaves provide a sharp note of acidity. Sold in a vinegar brine, the tangy grape leaves are complemented well by the citrusy and grassy dill in the filling. Tying the dish together is a smooth lemon yogurt sauce that enhances the acidity of the grape leaves, making every bite fresh and captivating. Wrapped individually with much patience, stuffed grape leaves are a savory and zesty delicacy that I never fail to enjoy.

Gazing into a pot of steaming, dark green stuffed grape leaves makes me feel connected to my great-grandmother Stella. Although I met her when I was a baby, she unfortunately passed away when I was very young, so I do not hold vivid memories of spending time with her. This saddens me, but the phenomena of legacy brings me comfort. My mother deeply resembles Stella in both appearance and generosity. My great-grandmother expressed love and affection through cooking for her family, just like my mother does. From what I have been told, it was always a priority of hers to ensure that her husband, children, and grandchildren were well fed and genuinely enjoying whatever they were eating. Holidays and celebrations were opportunities for her to prepare a variety of dishes and express her talents in the kitchen. I often see my mother reflect this behavior, since she herself views food as a creative outlet.

As I think about my Greek roots, I look forward to spending my Easter Break in Athens. I have never traveled to Greece before, and I cannot wait to immerse myself into its historical beauty. Walking through ruins of Ancient Greece will be surreal, but it will not be the first time I connect with part of my heritage. Eating stuffed grape leaves with my family reminds me of Stella’s ethnic background, and how she channeled it into her home cooking that touched the lives of so many. I wish my great grandmother were in my life right now, and I still get upset by the impossibility of this wish. But family traditions are more alive than one might think. They travel from one family to another, from one time period to the next, from one’s heart to another’s stomach in this case. Through my mother, I see Stella’s wisdom and generosity. The combination of tender rice, savory meat, acidic grape leaves, and vibrant lemon sauce transports me to a place I cannot easily define—or even see—but can certainly feel. Here, I am engulfed by the aromatic scent of stuffed grape leaves alongside my mother and my great-grandmother Stella, feeling safe and appreciated. This is a timeless memory.

Cover Photo Courtesy of deposit photos

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