Grape expectations

Aside from dairy, Shavuot is a holiday of first fruits.

grape leaves 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
grape leaves 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'When a man comes down to his field and sees a ripe fig, or a perfect cluster of grapes, or a beautiful pomegranate, he ties each with a red thread, saying, 'These are bikurim, the first fruits for the Festival.'" (Babylonian Talmud) The Bible tells us that the Shavuot holiday was one of the three pilgrimage festivals when farmers from around the country were obligated to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem and give thanks to God for their agricultural bounty, something we city slickers are apt to forget, since most of our food comes from the supermarket. And while legend has it that the Hebrews prepared themselves to receive the Torah by eating only dairy foods while Moses was up on the mountain, there's no doubt that once settled in the Holy Land, Shavuot was celebrated with the fresh barley gleaned from the fields after Pessah, together with the green wheat that ripened in the days before Shavuot. This week's column honors the biblical tradition with ancient seasonal foods: fresh grape leaves stuffed with freikeh. Made of wheat picked green and slowly roasted, freikeh is very similar to the "kali" (parched corn) mentioned in the Bible. Found mostly in Arab markets and specialty shops, it is a true gourmet delight. Substitute bulgur or brown rice if desired. You can find fresh home-grown grape leaves now in the market; take them home and dip each one in boiling water to blanch, or use bottled grape leaves (imported from Turkey). SESAME AND HERB STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES It's much easier than you think. I promise. Makes 6-10 servings 4 1 bottle or 250 gr. pickled grape leaves (or fresh grape leaves) Filling: 4 11⁄2 cups freikeh, bulgur or short-grain white or brown rice 4 Scant 3 cups water 4 1 tsp. salt 4 2 tsp. canola or olive oil 4 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 4 1⁄3 cup finely chopped onion 4 1 garlic clove, minced 4 1⁄4 cup chopped flat Italian parsley 4 1⁄4 cup chopped fresh dill 4 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint 4 1⁄4 tsp. turmeric 4 1 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds 4 Salt 4 Freshly ground black pepper to taste Cooking sauce: 4 1⁄2 cup water 4 1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 4 1⁄3 cup fresh lemon juice If using bottled grape leaves, rinse in batches under cold water. Transfer to a large bowl and gently separate the leaves. Cover with cold water and soak for 15 minutes to help remove some of the salt. Bring a scant 3 cups water to a boil with 1 teaspoon salt, and add the wheat or rice and canola oil. (If using freikeh, place it in a bowl, cover with water and stir. Remove pieces floating to the top. Repeat till water runs clear). Stir once with a fork, then cover and cook over low heat until water is absorbed. The grain should be just tender and not mushy. Check toward the end of cooking to make sure the water has not evaporated completely and the bottom is not burning. Transfer to a colander and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain well. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-low heat and add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, till tender. Off heat, stir in the cooked grain, sesame seeds, turmeric, parsley, dill and mint, and mix well. Season with salt and black pepper. (Don't over-salt because the grape leaves are still somewhat salty.) If using fresh leaves, rinse well and dip for a few seconds in boiling water, then trim off the stem. Place one leaf at a time on a clean surface with the veins facing up. (There are often torn or damaged leaves among the good ones; set these aside). Place a heaping tablespoon of the grain mixture in a line at the center-bottom of the leaf, fold in the sides and roll up tightly from the bottom. Place seam-side down in a large frying pan lightly coated with oil, or lined with damaged grape leaves. Repeat with the other leaves and the rest of the filling. Pack the grape leaves tightly one next to the other in a circular pattern, starting from the edges of the pot and working inward. If there is another layer, separate between the layers with torn grape leaves. Mix together water, olive oil and lemon juice and pour over the leaves equally. Set a heat-proof plate on top to keep the grape leaves in place during cooking. Bring to a boil on medium heat, then cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the leaves are tender but not soft. Make additional cooking sauce if necessary and add to the pot as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature, with yogurt if desired. Store the stuffed grape leaves in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Pour a little olive oil over them if they look dry. Best eaten within 3-4 days. CABBAGE SALAD WITH GRAPES & ALMONDS This light and colorful cabbage slaw makes a crunchy side dish to most Shavuot classics, and sports a delicious dressing that is a pleasing and healthier substitute for mayonnaise. 4 4 cups thinly sliced cabbage (1 small head) 4 1⁄2 cup thinly sliced scallions, white and tender part of green 4 1 rib celery, finely chopped 4 2 cups small green or red seedless grapes (or large, cut in half) 4 3⁄4 cup thick, rich, plain yogurt 4 2-3 Tbsp. frozen orange juice concentrate, or to taste 4 1 Tbsp. honey 4 2 ripe but firm pears 4 Salt 4 Freshly ground black pepper to taste 4 1⁄4 cup sliced blanched almonds, toasted 4 1-2 Tbsp. chopped crystallized ginger In a large bowl, mix cabbage, scallions, celery and grapes. If not serving immediately, cover tightly and refrigerate until serving time to keep crisp. Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan over low heat till lightly browned. Set aside for garnish. Just before serving, whisk yogurt with orange juice concentrate and honey in a small bowl. Taste and add more orange juice or honey if desired. Peel, halve, core and thinly slice pears. Add to the yogurt mixture and pour over the salad. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the toasted almonds and crystallized ginger on top and serve. Recipes adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer, (Harper-Collins) 2004.