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Ottolenghi’s Stuffed Grape Leaves and The Importance of Suckitude


Ottolenghi's Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb and Minted Yogurt Sauce

I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching lately. I recently saw this video of NPR host and producer Ira Glass, wherein he is speaking about storytelling and sharing about how long it takes to become good at something.

It really got me thinking about how I approach my writing and my photography. First let me back up. I would be remiss if I didn’t first explain that I feel like I’ve had a little bit of a breakdown over here at Salty Sweet Life.  I mean, it’s kind of been the elephant in the room, so to speak, or at least that is how I perceive things. It all started in May when I went to a photography workshop with Todd and Diane of White on Rice Couple. The workshop was really amazing. Almost three full days of intensive photography work learning from a couple who really are the best in the business. I took some of the best photos of my life during that workshop and I learned a lot. I came home, ready to crank out some masterpieces…and then reality set in. The photos that I took at home looked nothing like what I was producing at the workshop; and I was mad. The lighting in my house was challenging to deal with. I didn’t have access to a full studio worth of props and surfaces and textiles. My food looked funny. And I sucked.

Let me define “suck” for you a little better. In this context sucking at something doesn’t mean that what you are doing doesn’t have any merit at all. It just means that what you are putting out doesn’t quite meet the standard that you’ve set in your brain to reach. No matter what I did, my photos didn’t approach the quality of photos that I was producing at the workshop, not to mention they didn’t come close to looking like the work Todd and Diane were producing, seemingly effortless, on a daily basis. Even the photos they deleted far exceeded anything I could create! And this is not to say there was anything wrong with the workshop or how they taught it. What was wrong was how I thought about it. In short, I was expecting my photography, something I’ve been practicing inconsistently for less than 2 years, to be as good as someone who has been doing it at an expert level for more than 20 years! It’s staggering to me just writing that. I am offended by my own hubris!

Blogging is a challenge. Photography is a challenge. Almost anything you can undertake that’s worth doing is a challenge. I know a lot of us start blogging with stars in our eyes and think that instantly we are going to start producing content that everyone wants to read or view. We ourselves read blogs and think, hey, I can do that! I can [insert the thing you can do here]! Why not blog about it? But then it hits you that there’s a learning curve, and that maybe your traffic isn’t where you thought it would be…or that your article didn’t get featured by, well anyone. And then you realize, that you kind of suck at this. And you wonder if you should keep going, because let’s face it, sucking doesn’t feel good. And then, if you’re me, you’ll look back at 2014 and realize that for the better half of the year, you’ve been stuck in a fog of writers block, photographer’s block and general malaise, wondering if you should just throw in the towel. The thing was, I didn’t want to quit. But I certainly couldn’t keep feeling like this.

I knew I had to do something to pluck myself from this very bad, sucktastic place. Last October, while on vacation in Portland, I was browsing through the stacks at Powell’s Books and stumbled upon this really great book on the creative process called Make it Mighty Ugly, by Kim Piper Werker. I hungrily consumed the introduction right there in the bookstore, and I knew what I needed was inside this book.


This book was life changing because it made me realize I’m not the only one with the desire to pursue a creative passion without having a clear idea of how best to express it.  Then, after expressing it, realizing that the outcome is not nearly as awesome as I’d envisioned it. I wanted to chuck my projects right into the trash. It’s frustrating. What this book taught me was not only is it ok to make ugly things but it’s ok to embrace the ugly things I create as I develop my skills. This place…this middle ground between where I aspire to be and where I currently find myself is completely normal.  In other words, unfortunately, I’m going to have to suck for a long time before I don’t suck.  And this is hard for me because I’m the oldest child of an exacting military father and and artist mother, who raised me to believe that failure was not an option and anything less than excellence was grounds for discipline.  Unfortunately, instead of pushing me to greatness, this emphasis on perfection created so much self-doubt that when I made something that wasn’t perfect, I simply stopped creating. It’s ironic how the quest for perfection paralyzed me to the point where I couldn’t even begin.

Now it’s 2015 and the start of  brand new year begs, no, requires that I make strides. That I set goals and make plans and resolve to be better than you were the year before. And so, I have resolved to suck less in 2015 than I did in 2014. And I think part of that process has to start from me learning to be ok with not being the best at everything right away and to simply be ok with sucking sometimes.  I feel great about this, because I know that it’s temporary and that one day, just as Ira Glass said, my product will match my visions and expectations.


Turning over new leaves

So, in the spirit of New Year’s Resolutions, I’ll lay out a few things I’m committed to this changing this year.

1. Consistency. 2014 was all over the place. I started off the year blogging two to three times a week and ended the year barely eking out a blog post once a week. This sucks, and I know those of you who read this blog deserve better. So I am committed to getting on a more regular blogging schedule. I’m not quite sure what that schedule will be yet, but I’m working on it. 

2. Writing good. A friend of mine who reads this blog sent me an email saying that a blog post I wrote recently really resonated with her. I immediately emailed her back, anxious to know why this particular post moved her and not others. In a nutshell, she told me that it was less peppy and used fewer exclamation points than my usual posts. It was more real, more from the heart and  it showed my life wasn’t perfect. I scanned my previous posts and realized with horror that, sure enough, I was throwing around exclamation points like a rap mogul with a handful of dollar bills in a strip club! This one email probably changed me more than anything else in 2014, because it made me realize if my life looks perfect, then I’m not writing from a place of real honesty. It made me realize that sometimes I write from a place of wanting to fit in–I call this my “inner band geek”. Take a look around the blogosphere. Bloggers are a rather peppy lot. They use a lot of exclamation points and funzy words like “amaze-balls” and that’s fine, but it doesn’t really reflect my truth. I’ve never been one of the “cool kids” and I am ok with that.

Over the holidays I availed myself to the public library, a place I hadn’t been in almost a decade. I came home with a Jenga-esque stack of books from notable food writers like Ruth Reichl, Gabrielle Hamilton and Molly Wizenberg and through reading them, I realized that I want to be a much better writer than I am; and in order to be a better writer, I need to be a better reader. So, I am committed to reading good food writing in an effort to learn how to be a better food writer. This commitment is actually fun for me because I already love reading. It’s like my parents grounding me by sending me to my room, which is where I wanted to be all along. Incidently, this same friend gifted me Best Food Writing 2014 for Christmas. I took the hint and I’ve read at least one article from it every day since Christmas. I highly recommend it.


3. Seeing the light. I realized if I’m going to ever going to be good at photography I need to practice a lot more than I have been. One thing that Todd and Diane shared in the workshop was it takes a long time to learn to see light and how it plays off of an object. I heard them say it, but I don’t think I internalized what that meant until I got home and tried to take photos. The thought that I would actually have to practice hours and hours on food photography was an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable task and I wasn’t feeling the joy. I hate practicing. I wish I didn’t, but I do and I’ve been this way since I was a little squirt, defiantly ignoring my mother as she desperately wrung her hands wanting me to practice the piano lessons that she could barely afford. Because I realize this trait of mine, I have committed to practice photography and food styling. Over on my Instagram feed, I am sharing some of my practice photos wherein I’m replicating photos from my cookbooks. In recreating these photos, I’m forcing myself to think about composition and lighting and along the way, I hope to improve my food styling skills.

I know I’ve blathered on for quite some time and you’re probably wondering if I’ll ever get to the recipe–I promise, I will. But I just wanted to finish with saying that I know that Salty Sweet Life can be a really good blog. In fact, I know in my heart that it can be an awesome blog…eventually (totally “amaze-balls”!). My posts may never “go viral” but they can still be good. My writing and photography can be something I’m proud to say I created, and you know, with enough work and commitment, one day it won’t suck. I hope you can stick with me for the ride!


This photo was inspired by the cookbook photo from Ottolenghi

Ottolenghi's Stuffed Grape Leaves with Minted Yogurt Sauce

  • Servings: 20-25 rolls
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

The recipe for these Stuffed Grape Leaves came from another of my Christmas presents, the cookbook Ottolenghi. I’d been fairly satisfied with the jarred or canned stuffed grape leaves that you can find in Eastern European markets, always assuming that it would be too much trouble to make them from scratch. While it’s not a complicated dish, it does take a bit of time to execute, so don’t try to make them if you’re in a time crunch. However, when you find yourself with some extra time and you happen to have made a New Year’s resolution to quiet your mind, this is a perfect way to achieve that. Put on some good music or a great podcast and start rolling. I really enjoyed the slow pace of stuffing and rolling. It was quite meditative and well worth the effort. The filling is both sweet and tart, dotted with sweet currants and highlighted by bright splashes of fresh mint, lemon and parsley.   The original dish is vegetarian, but I adapted it by adding a bit of ground lamb to the stuffing because we were hungry.

Adapted from Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

For the Filling:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 pound ground lamb
  • 1 onion finely chopped (the food processor works very well for this)
  • 1/2 cup short grain rice – I used arborio rice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons currants
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried mint – however I used 1 teaspoon fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Remaning ingredients:

  • 20-25 jarred grape leaves, plus extra leaves to line the pan
  • 1 1/2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup greek yogurt
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint
  1. Carefully remove the grape leaves from the jar and place into a large mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over the grape leaves and allow them to sit for 10 minutes. Pat each leaf dry with a towel and set them on a sheet pan lined with paper towels. If there are any torn leaves, reserve them for lining the bottom of the cooking pot.
  2. Add the olive oil to a skillet on medium heat and add the ground beef cooking it until it is brown and crumbled. Remove the browned lamb from the pan and place in a separate bowl. Remove all but a tablespoon of oil in the pan and add the onions, sautéing them until they are softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat in the olive oil. Add the remainder of the filling ingredients as well as the ground lamb and continuing cooking for 10 minutes. The rice will not be cooked through at this point.
  3. Place a medium sized grape leaf, textured and veiny side down on a work surface. Spoon about a tablespoon of the filling into the bottom half of each leaf. Mold the filling with your fingers into a cylindrical shape, then fold the sides of the leaf tightly across the filling. Roll from the bottom to the top of the leaf in a tight cigar shape. The finished roll will be tiny, a little less than 2 inches long.
  4. Layer the bottom of a medium sized heavy bottomed pan with extra grape leaves, including any torn leaves you may have set aside until the layers are about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.  This will keep the rolls from burning. Line the rolls on top of the layer of leaves and pack them in as tightly as possible. Pour enough water over the rolls to just cover them and add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, the salt and the olive oil. Place a saucer on top of the rolls to keep them from moving. I also placed a glass jar of water on top of the saucer to weigh it down a bit more. Bring to a gentle boil, then immediately turn the heat to the lowest setting. Cover and cook for 50 to 60 minutes until the leaves are tender and there is very little cooking water left in the pot. Carefully remove the rolls and place them on a serving platter.
  5. In a small bowl, combine the yogurt with the dill, fresh mint, a squeeze of lemon juice. and a pinch of salt. Serve with the stuffed grape leaves.

Ottolenghi's Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb and Minted Yogurt Sauce

Ottolenghi's Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb and Minted Yogurt Sauce

Ottolenghi's Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb and Minted Yogurt Sauce


  1. Thank you for posting this. This is what blogging is all about. It is people like you and blogs like yours that are the best and most enjoyable to read.

    • I really appreciate your kind words–sometimes posting things like this makes me so nervous that it will go over like a lead balloon! Thank you so much for stopping by. Happy New Year and I hope we get to connect more soon!

  2. I may or may not have a tear in my eye. What a wonderful honest piece of writing Tracey. You know I love you, your writing, photography and recipes. I completely relate to suck-frustration and you’ve just offered me a mental pass. I’m headed to look up both books you mentioned. Happy NEW Year my friend. Can’t wait to see you soar in 2015.

    • Libby! Thank you! A million thanks for reading and for all of your support and friendship this year! I’m also happy that I’m not the only one who deals with feeling this way. I’m glad it gave you a mental pass! I love your work so much and I really look up to you. You’re one of the bloggers I love to emulate! Happy New Year to you as well!

  3. Norma Harris-Hagan says

    For those whom much (talent, in this case) is given, much is required/expected. As your mom, I have always been delightled at the outstanding achievements you have mastered all your life. I didn’t get the opportunity to take piano and cello lessons and excel at them, attain academic excellence throughout my life, and allowed to become one of the most beautiful and socially graceful young women I know. Yes, I am living vicariously through my daughter. You are everything I always wished I could have become. Had you been one of the classmates you considered “cool”, do you think you would have soared to the heights you continue to set for yourself? Would you have preferred mediocrity? I can only imagine what it would be like to walk in your shoes. You are so precious to me, and to your dad. Don’t stop setting the bar highest for yourself, as long as you are having fun! xoxox

  4. Norma Harris-Hagan says

    BTW, I love the pix of the grape leaf wraps with the lemon slices. You may be an amateur photographer, but you make food jump off the page and titillate my senses. Keep up the good work!
    …And about those numerous exclamation marks you’ve used, what’s wrong with showing your passion for your work?

    • Thanks Mom! I really appreciate your comments. And as for exclamation points, I think that I was using them almost as a cop-out. What I’m learning to do is express my excitement through words and not just throw an exclamation point on it. Love you!

  5. I’m going to find those authors you mentioned, as well as other professional food writers. The writing part is something that is on the top of my to-do list this year. I as well never feel like I have the perfect props,and back drops. Better Homes and Garden posted a pic of their prop room a few weeks back and I nearly fainted! They had everything we (food bloggers) could possibly need at their disposal! My little prop station couldn’t compare. lol This post is an awesome start to the new year Tracey it spoke to me completely! I was struggling with posting my first video ever because it didn’t look like the more experienced Vloggers, and my husband said “no one starts out perfect Christina!” I figure it’s all a process right? I look forward to your progress this year, I just know it’s going to be AMAZE-BALLS!

    • Christina, isn’t it amazing how we don’t give ourselves a chance to grow for fear of making mistakes? I watched your video and I thought you did a great job! It gave me some inspiration to do the same. It’s scary and I know it’s going to start out rough, but now I can feel better about the roughness. I’m so happy that this post spoke to you. And about the props–holy cow, you should have seen the props Diane had. It would make you weep. It was like a wonderland in there. But, I have a feeling that everyone feels the same way about their prop closet. I know I do! I’ve decided that progress will be enough this year. 🙂

  6. I think that a lot of people are going through this exact thing. I’ve always found your photography amazing and your dishes beyond creative. You’ve been a great mentor to me when I didn’t know step one. Thank you for what you are right now. Good luck on what you want to accomplish.

  7. This is a really good post, really encouraging for me…I hate practice as well. I think it is partly to do with my day job, which is intellectually taxing and quite pressured. Blogging has always been about an antidote to that, a creative outlet that uses a different part of my brain. But I am finding it harder and harder to take photos that I am pleased with. If I want to improve, there can be no short cuts! I have to suck it up. Thanks for writing about this – and just for the record, you already take wonderful photos.

    • Chez, I’m really glad this was an encouraging post for you. I feel the same about it being a creative outlet but there are times that I get stressed about it as well. Thank you for the compliment on the photos and your photos are so beautiful! I am looking forward to the day when the photography will be second nature, but at this point, it still takes a lot of work and thinking! Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to you–it’s been crazy busy around here! 🙂

  8. Wendy W says

    I’m not sure if you still read comments here, but after reading this post I felt compelled to write something. I stumbled across your blog last night after a recipe search. I not only found that for which I searched, I found a lovely blog with vivid photography and well-chosen words that made me want to keep reading. I consider myself to be a bit of a literary book snob with no time, interest, or tolerance for bad writing. I find a great deal of “blog land” to be the realm of the semi-literate, filled with inane commentary and endless drivel. I think you are much too hard on yourself, I think you’ve created a very sweet spot on the internet, and I will be sad when I have read your entire blog and run out of content.

  9. Wendy W says

    So happy to find you’re still here. Spent a good chunk of my Saturday morning looking at your Instagram. I’m definitely a fan, but not in that creepy stalker-type way!

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