I recently noticed a Facebook post from fellow ARS Ungerouhi Seda Aghamianz calling for “Derev Pickers” to help themselves to grape leaves at Kaligian Farms. That’s what they call their yard, and she hated to see the grape leaves go to waste, as she does not make yalanchi. This was a sign. This was my time to enter the ring in the yalanchi/sarma arena—an arena I long felt I did not belong in nor could I fathom picking leaves and making the ever so famous Armenian grape leaves. Off I went with my youngest daughter Knar, thinking this could be a family affair. With our masks on and her wrist in a cast, we started picking derev.
What’s the right size? What shape is best? How many should I collect? How do you pull it off without damaging the stem and leaf? I should have brought scissors! I turned to another fellow ARS Ungerouhi Betty Basmajian Dimitian of the famous Watertown Arax Market. She shared suggestions on leaf size, as well as blanching, cooling and storing the leaves.
I jumped in with two feet, grabbed as many leaves as I thought necessary, having no clue really. On my way home, I was so proud of the act of collecting derev. I was a real dandeegeen now. I just needed an apron while doing it to feel the part.
I took Ungh. Betty’s advice and blanched the leaves, putting them in a boiling pot, but not too long, maybe four to five minutes. After removing them from the pot, I put them in a big Tupperware container of cold water with ice cubes. Mission accomplished. But removing them and getting the water out was not an easy assignment. The cookbooks basically tell you the steps, but not many hints on best practice. So I pulled out a large bath towel and placed it on the counter to lay the leaves out flat and dry them one by one. I knew full well this was not the way, but I was playing it safe. It was taking too long and too much room. I am sure this is not how the ladies at St. Stephen’s Church do it. I proceeded to just ring the leaves out in bunches. It wasn’t pretty. It took forever to unfold them out of the bunches, but it worked. I very neatly placed all the leaves out to dry. It was a pretty sight in the end.
After an entire afternoon of picking leaves in the heat, blanching and drying, I was in no mood to make the “meechoog” (filling) and roll grape leaves. It was too late in the day to finish. Poor planning on my part, but I learned how much time it takes to just prepare the leaves. I proceeded to collect the dry leaves to store in the refrigerator. Ungh. Betty had sent very clear directions, so I proceeded to store the leaves between small pieces of paper towel and placed them in the refrigerator until the next day. You can freeze the leaves up to six months, but I was on a mission to get this done as soon as possible.
The next day I pulled out another Armenian cookbook for more direction: It Took A Village by the St. Sarkis Armenian Church Ladies Guild—my hometown. And boy this yalanchi production was taking a village, really. I turned to the yalanchi page and found Violet Gavoor’s recipe. It just so happened that same day, while I was on Facebook, I saw Violet, her daughters Nancy and Ani and her granddaughter Kara, making yalanchi. (I am not kidding.) So this was another sign for sure. Knowing Auntie Violet, I trusted her and used her recipe and their Facebook photo as inspiration.
I proceeded to chop the ingredients (parsley, dill, onions), prepared the rice (rinsed) and cooked the filling. It smelled great and tasted even better. I tried not to overcook the rice filling and undercooked a bit to let the final cooking take place in the pot. Once cooled, I began rolling the leaves. I was surprisingly pretty good at filling and rolling the grape leaves; this was my best skill yet. The leaves were just the right size and shape (Thanks, Betty). I had ample leaf on both sides to fold in and roll the yalanchi. I learned that from watching the ladies at church. Once the leaves were all filled and rolled, I neatly and tightly placed all the yalanchi in the bottom of the pot lined with leaves that didn’t make the cut to be rolled. They all looked great and smelled even better. I proceeded to pour water over the yalanchi and let cook for 75 minutes. Of course, I added a plate on top to keep the yalanchi packed. This much I knew. Next to the apron, these little tricks of the dandeegeen were a must to learn and know. After cooking, I let it cool and was excited to taste.
I was anxious that it might not taste like my mother-in-law’s; she was the gold standard. After one bite, I could immediately list all the things that weren’t right. I was cheap on the salt and pepper as my family doesn’t like too much of either, so I skimped. DON’T SKIMP on seasoning. They will just have to deal with it. My idea to undercook was a bad one. Just cook it through. There is nothing worse than crunchy yalanchi. I was so worried about overcooking that I basically undercooked it. A tasty soft “meechoog” is way better than a crunchy one. It looked great. The leaves were not tough but soft and easy to chew. I have to give it an A for appearance and effort for the first attempt. I give it a C+ for filling texture and a B- for flavor. You live and learn, right? I would do it all over again, cooking and seasoning the rice differently and longer. I would also have leaves on hand and blanched well before making the yalanchi.
I learned a lot and would have no clue if I never tried. The best part of this has been the community you build while having these cooking adventures. I consulted many and enjoyed some funny conversations. After seeing my comments with Seda, Josh Tevekelian also ventured over to her home for leaves to make yalanchi. Josh and I later exchanged notes and laughed about our experiences. Gail Guzelian also made yalanchi that same week.
Novice cooking has resonated with many during these odd times. I learned that many people have never made yalanchi; I wasn’t the only one. I suppose many felt challenged by it, just like me. So go out, try a new recipe and test the waters. Failure is just feedback. Take it for what it’s worth and learn from it and let that failure guide you to be better next time, in the kitchen or in life.