It is easy to be seduced by stuffed vine leaves, dolmades, cute little cylanders of savoury rice encased in a briny grape vine leaf, slowly simmered until tender in a fragrant broth. I order them in Middle Eastern restaurants, buy them in ethnic stores and have long thought that making them would be a large and cumbersome project. Not!
Making dolmades does require almost assembly-line organization, though, to ensure the various steps are completed efficiently. I drained and rinsed a whole jar of grape vine leaves and laid them out flat across my entire kitchen island. Cooked up some rice, added in some chopped fresh herbs, and metered out equal mounds onto each awaiting leaf. Then the rolling begins. It goes quickly once all the filling is in place. Each little stuffed log gets nestled into a large pan, tightly and firmly so as to stay intact. Add some fresh lemon juice, water and a couple of bay leaves, and let these babies cook for about an hour. The result? Tender, lemon-scented snacks or appetizers, nice warm, but significantly better the next day chilled overnight in the fridge. They keep for a few days and lend themselves to nibbling out of hand. They are a welcome addition to a meze table of assorted Middle Eastern vegetables and marinated salads, pita bread, olives and cheeses.
Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Vine Leaves) recipe adapted from www.saveur.com
5 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided; 1 clove garlic, minced; 1⁄2 medium onion, minced; 1⁄2 cup basmati rice; 1/2 tomato, cut into small dice; 1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin; 1⁄4 cup minced fresh dill; 1⁄4 cup minced fresh parsley; 3⁄4 tsp. dried mint or 2 tbsp. minced fresh mint; 1/8 cup toasted pine nuts; 34 grape leaves in brine, drained and very well rinsed; 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice; 1/4 tsp. salt; 1 bay leaf.
Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a 12" skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and onions and cook until soft, 3 – 4 minutes. Add rice. Toast for 3 minutes, stirring. Add cumin, tomato and 1+1⁄2 cups water. Season with salt and pepper. Boil and then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, until rice has absorbed water, 12 – 15 minutes. Do not cover the rice as it will become mushy. The water needs to evaporate. Stir in pine nuts along with dill, parsley, and mint. Let cool slightly.
Coat bottom of a 3 - litre saucepan with remaining 3 tbsp. oil and 3 tbsp. water. Cover with 4 grape leaves, using some of the torn ones in the jar. Set remaining grape leaves on a work surface, vein side up. Working with one leaf at a time, flatten leaf and place about 1+1⁄2 tsp. rice mixture in center. Fold bottom of leaf over filling, fold in sides, and roll into tight cylinder. Transfer, seam side down, to pot. Repeat. Nestle the stuffed vine leaves in tightly together so that they do not unravel as they cook. Add lemon juice, salt, bay leaf and 3⁄4 cup water to pot. Cover grape leaves with a dinner plate placed upside down over them to keep them submerged and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the vine leaves are tender, about 1 hour. Keep the water level constant throughout the cooking time by periodically adding some more when needed. Some people like to serve these warm but I find them much better the next day, after a thorough chill in the fridge. Makes about 30.
A 1 - litre jar of Krinos brand grape vine leaves has just over 60 leaves in it, so if you double the recipe you can use the whole jar. It is OK to lay a few layers of stuffed vine leaves in a large pan as long as you adjust the amount of liquid and keep them covered.
I have been smitten with dolmades for close to 30 years now, first tasting them at my teenage boyfriend's house where his Egyptian-Jewish mother served what seemed like the most unusual and exotic Sephardic dishes, foods that Jews from the Middle East enjoyed, delicacies completely unfamiliar to my Ashkenazi Jewish family from eastern Europe. It has taken me this long to make dolmades myself. I see now that my hesitation was a mistake, as they are fun and easy to put together, given one's proclivity for this sort of activity. If you lean towards a little bit of stuffing and rolling in the kitchen, don't make the same mistake I made with dolmades. Just do it!
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