Our Mogannam Father’s Day Tradition: Mom’s Stuffed Grape Leaves

When I was growing up, my dad’s Father’s Day wish was simple: to be surrounded by his children (me, my sister, and two brothers) at the table on that June Sunday. And, as obedient first generation children, we obliged. We loved our dad, of course, but the promise of a feast made by our mom certainly didn’t hurt the proposition. Her stuffed grape leaves–perfectly timed since the leaves are at their most tender in summer–were always the star of the show and one of our favorite dishes.

If you’ve never made them, you may not realize how labor-intensive stuffed grape leaves are to craft, which is why they’re usually reserved as a special occasion food. Starting early in the morning, my mom would prepare the stuffing—a mixture of ground lamb, rice, onions, and allspice–filling the house with sweet and spicy aromas. She would then spend a chunk of the day rolling the grape leaves, one at a time, each leaf nurtured, filled, and rolled to uniform perfection. The dish took eight hours of work, start to finish, and our hands would be in the pot before it even hit the table. When the grape leaves were finally served, silence and the occasional grunt would be all you would hear. The dish was always obliterated in a matter of minutes. You’d think that would have frustrated my mother, but it actually fulfilled her. She knew we were happy and she savored that moment when my father would finally look up, and, seeing his wife and children around the table, simply sit content with a smile on his face.

Father’s Day is still the same in our household. We still celebrate at my parents’ house, and my mother still makes grape leaves, but now my wife and daughters celebrate the day with us. The meal is still devoured in minutes, although my girls tend to linger a bit on the grape leaves, now their favorite dish as well.

My dad is even happier now as he gets to share the day with his daughter-in-law and granddaughters. And as a father myself, I now completely understand that smile my father exuded at the end of each meal. He was celebrating one of life’s simplest and most important pleasures, one we don’t commit to often enough—family unity. When my family is together around the table, we focus on each other and the meal, share memories and jokes, and catch up on weeks past. They are moments to appreciate each other, and to celebrate. It is a time without distractions–no TV, no cell phones, no video games.  My father taught me to value family and to value the food we have been given. Together, my parents taught us to love and I will be forever grateful and savor every minute I get to share with them.

Thanks to Ali Slagle of The Recipe Club for getting me thinking about how special this tradition has been to me and my family!

Moroccan Lamb Meatloaf
Serves 8 to 10

This is no ordinary meatloaf. A hefty dose of fresh herbs and dried spices means it’s packed with flavor; the yogurt, tahini, and rolled oats help keep it moist. We developed this recipe as a deli sandwich special, but it’s just as delicious eaten on its own. For best results, try to get ground lamb with 15 to 20 percent fat content; ground shoulder usually falls in this range. Meat from the leg is too lean and will result in a dry end product.

1 large onion, minced (2 cups)
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 tablespoons tahini
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground toasted cumin (see below)
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds ground lamb
1 1/2 tablespoons harissa (see Note)
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 350°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick liner and set aside. Combine the onion, oats, cilantro, mint, yogurt, tahini, garlic, allspice, cumin, paprika, and cayenne in a large bowl, along with 4 teaspoons salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper. Mix well to blend. With your hands, break the lamb into small chunks and add to the bowl. Mix gently but thoroughly; overmixing will make the meatloaf tough and dry. When all the ingredients are evenly combined, transfer to the baking sheet and shape into a flat loaf about 13 by 6 by 1 1/2 inches.

Bake until an instant-read thermometer registers 150°F at the thickest part of the loaf, 55 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the harissa and tomato paste in a small bowl. When the meatloaf is done, brush the mixture over the loaf and bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, or until the internal temperature reads 165°F. Let the loaf rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing (longer is better, as the pooled juices will be reabsorbed into the meatloaf).

Note: Harissa is a chile-and-spice paste that hails from North Africa. For a slightly different effect, you could substitute Asian chile-garlic sauce.

Toasted, Ground Cumin Seeds
To toast cumin seeds, heat them in a small skillet over medium-high heat until aromatic and slightly darker, about 2 minutes. Let cool and grind in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder or use the bottom of a sauté pan against a cutting board.

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