Monday, January 25, 2021

The Star of the Sukkot Party: Stuffed Grape Leaves

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The highlight of the Sukkot holiday has always been nabbing an invite to the Sheff family’s sukkah party. Every year explored a new theme, ranging from “Mariachis and Margaritas” to “Western-Style Beers and Barbecue” to “Moroccan Cigars to Cuban Stogies,” not to mention the memorable night that famous Armenian singer John Bilezikjian brought his oud and we had an authentic Middle Eastern hafla (party). We were reminiscing about these fabulous parties and how Rachel would need a vacation after hosting each one. 

That same day, an email from an old friend popped into the inbox of Rachel’s husband, Neil. Attached was a video from the first sukkah party that Neil and Rachel had hosted as newlyweds in their backyard in Westwood. It’s crazy to go back in time and see all that the camera captured — the friends who ham it up and the ones who avoid the camera, the earnest dvar Torah and the funny ad libs. And the hair. Enough big hair to give “Jersey Shore” some serious competition. 

When Neil shared the video with our group, one friend said, “Thank you to the SEC (Sephardic Educational Center) for bringing us all together and for lifelong friendships. And long live big hair.”

These days, it’s all about the next generation: our children and their friends from the SEC Israel Hamsa Trips. 

Sukkot is the holiday that God dictates that we dine al fresco, under the stars in a temporary hut with family and friends. We commemorate the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert, we remember the pilgrimages that our ancestors made to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and we rejoice in the bounty of the fall harvest. 

For Sephardic families, Sukkot means vegetables such as peppers, onion, eggplant, zucchini, tomato and, of course, vine leaves, stuffed with any combination of rice, parsley, mint, pine nuts, lemon and/or ground lamb or beef. 

While the origins of stuffed grape leaves may be Greek, the chefs of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul served these exotic treats to the sultan and his exalted guests. Eventually, this food became an integral part of the cuisine of the Mediterranean, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Central Asia. The Jews of central Europe adapted the recipe by substituting cabbage leaves for the difficult-to-obtain grape leaves.  Thank goodness, you can pick up a jar of marinated grape leaves from the market. 

We hope you enjoy the recipes Rachel learned to make to honor her husband Neil’s Rhodesli culinary heritage.



1 onion, chopped
7 tablespoons olive oil, separated
2 cups rice, rinsed
4 cups water, separated
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
Juice of 4 lemons, separated
32-ounce jar grape leaves, rinsed and drained

Sauté onion in 1 tablespoon oil until golden.

Add rice, 2 cups water, salt and pepper, and cook rice according to package directions. 

When rice is almost cooked through, add parsley and juice of 2 lemons and cook until all liquid has been absorbed.

Allow rice to cool.

Stuff leaves with teaspoon of rice mixture and roll leaves into small cigars. Arrange tightly in pot. 

Cover with 2 cups water, juice of 2 lemons and 6 tablespoons oil. 

Place dish on top of grape leaves, cover pot with lid and cook for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat and cook for 1 hour.

Best served same day. Do not refrigerate if serving same day cooked.

Can be frozen, defrosted, reheated and served at room temperature

Serve cold as an appetizer.

Makes 50-60.


1 large jar grape leaves, drained and rinsed
2-3 cans Great Northern beans, or 1 pound dry beans soaked overnight, boiled and salted

2 pounds ground beef, lamb or turkey
1/2 cup long-grain white rice, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons oil
Juice of 1 juicy lemon
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
Juice of 2 lemons

In large bowl, combine all filling ingredients and mix well. Set aside. 

In medium bowl, combine all sauce ingredients, except lemon juice, and mix well. Set aside.

Place rinsed grape leaves on kitchen towel. Cut off all tips of stems.

Place grape leaf vein-side up on flat surface. Place teaspoon of meat filling at the bottom and roll up tucking in the sides, and rolling.

In large, deep pan, place layer of beans, and then a layer of rolled grape leaves. Leaves should be placed in tightly packed circular pattern. Add another layer of beans and another layer of leaves, finishing with beans on the top. 

Pour sauce on top, then place dish on top so rolls don’t separate. 

Simmer for 1 hour, covered. When leaves are tender, add lemon juice. 

Do not add salt to sauce until it is cooked and you have tasted it.

Makes 36.

Rachel Emquies Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food. 

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