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RECIPES OF THE REGION: Lebanese grandma leaves culinary traditions to West Scranton family

James Bolus, left, and Kat Bolus, WVIA's community reporter, make grape leaves from their grandmother's recipe.
Aimee Dilger
James Bolus, left, and Kat Bolus, WVIA's community reporter, make grape leaves from their grandmother's recipe.

Catherine Bolus always sat at the head of a long dining room table in the seat closest to the kitchen of her small four-room apartment in West Scranton.

Food unites people from diverse cultures, backgrounds & ages like nothing else.  Join us at the table as we serve up generations of family recipes, traditions & memories in our new series, Recipes of the Region.

The Brooklyn born, first-generation Lebanese American either prepped feasts alone or with her children and grandchildren — and sometimes their friends — on either side of the table.

My cousin, James, and I have been tossing around the idea to cook through our grandmother Catherine’s original recipe book. She preserved her labor of love with her typewriter and our cousin then made it digital. Now, it exists on the internet for our whole family to enjoy.

“We’re gonna cook together. We’re gonna roll together," said James, the head chef and co-owner of Backwoods Bar and Kitchen in Dallas.

Welcome to Recipes of the Region, the first of WVIA's occasional culinary series. Join us as we share generations of family recipes, cultural traditions and memories from Northeast and Central Pennsylvania.

Almost 20 years later, I now live in my grandma’s apartment. James and I sat in her kitchen rolling grape leaves using the technique she taught us — place a couple teaspoons of the meat, spice and rice mixture in the middle, fold in the sides and roll.

Our grandma usually mixed the filling for her grape leaves in a yellow plastic bowl. The traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dish is known by many names – dolmades, dolma, warak enab, and yabrak, which is the closest to what we grew up calling them.

“We get like a lot of the passed down family verbiage. But obviously not speaking Arabic makes it a little difficult,” said James.

The last Arabic speakers in my family were gone by the time James and I were born.

I grew up in the house next to my grandma and in our shared yard was not one, but two vines of grape leaves.

When they were young, Catherine's eight children, including my father, Gary, and James' dad, Michael, picked leaves at relatives houses and in the wild.

My Aunt Arlene lived near Hudson, New York, and had a vine in her yard that our grandmother loved. She would pluck leaves when she visited to bring home. According to family lore, in the late 70s, early 80s, my dad brought a piece of the vine back to Scranton to propagate for Catherine. They still sprout every summer. Our cousin, Michelle, now has a piece of that vine at her home in New Jersey.

My mother, Jeannie, is the best Irish-Lebanese cook you’ll ever meet. She had just plucked about 100 leaves and put them in the freezer. I grabbed 50 in the morning and left them out to thaw. By the time James got to my house, they were ready to roll.

“Not everybody has grape leaves laying around in the backyard,” said James.

James makes a good point. So, for those that don’t, most grocery stores sell jarred grape leaves in a brine.

Our family recipes evolved over time. Catherine’s recipe calls for lamb, but we remember her using beef.

“It's hard to say if it was because of the accessibility or if it was just because everybody preferred beef,” said James.

We joked that she might have used lamb, but neglected to tell us out of fear we wouldn’t eat it.

I checked with the family historian, my Aunt Valerie. She said Catherine used to grind her own lamb for the leaves but in the end, buying ground beef was just easier.

James Bolus rolls meat grape leaves using a technique taught to him by his grandmother.
Aimee Dilger
James Bolus rolls meat grape leaves using a technique taught to him by his grandmother.

James, a professional chef, used our cooking session as an experiment. We rolled half the leaves with beef like we remembered and the other half with lamb he brought from Lehman Nursery.

Without Catherine’s expert hand, James and I worked out the recipe.

We used kosher salt. James prefers its taste over table salt.

We put the grape leaves stuffed with beef in a Dutch oven on the stove top because that’s how our grandma made them. They simmered in a bath of water, lemon juice and salt for about an hour. James’ experimental grape leaves baked in the oven in a deep-sided (hotel) pan, also covered with water, lemon and salt.

The kitchen smelled like grandma’s — earthy and lemony. Citrus was a big part of her recipe.

“The pepper and the citrus is really the big thing,” said James.

The only thing we were missing from our dish was the pita I used to help bring back from the far reaches of Hazle Street in Wilkes-Barre.

Grandma would enjoy reading this and tasting the food James cooks. Catherine died on Christmas Day 2006. She often wrote down and told stories from her life. I'd like to think of this as one of them.

Meat-stuffed grape leaves.
Aimee Dilger
Meat-stuffed grape leaves.
Meat Stuffed Grape Leaves
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes

1 pound ground beef or lamb
1 cup jasmine rice
1 tablespoon salt
¾ teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground allspice
1 jar grape leaves or 25 to 30 fresh leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)

- Soak rice at least two hours ahead of time (this makes the cooking process faster).
- Drain rice and mix thoroughly together with the meat, salt, pepper and allspice.
- If using leaves from a jar, rinse before rolling.
- If using fresh leaves, blanch for a few seconds to make rolling easier.
- Roll the leaves with the leaf rough side up, place two teaspoons of filling in the center, fold the stem side horizontally over the filling, then fold the two vertical sides over the first fold.
- Roll tightly until it reaches the leaf point forming a cylinder 3” long by 1/2” thick
- Place a layer of leaves on the bottom of a medium size pot or Dutch oven.
- Place the rolls side by side in layers in the pot.
- Cover with water and add the lemon juice and an extra ½ teaspoon of salt.
- Bring to a boil.
- Cover and cook on low heat for 45 minutes or until rice is tender.

Alternative cooking method
Place rolls side by side in deep-sided (hotel) pan, cover halfway with water, add lemon juice and cover with foil.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Send us your recipe story ideas
Please email 'Recipes of the Region' ideas to wvianews@wvia.org

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.

You can email Kat at katbolus@wvia.org