Dolmathes / Stuffed Grape Leaves

Those of you that know me know that I come from a Greek background.  Since I have been writing this blog, more than one person has indicated on occasion that I don’t have enough Greek recipes.  Generally, my response to them has been that I want to learn and write about recipes and food from many different cultures, and not just focus on one specific type of food.

Dishes that many of us consider to be Greek are actually quite common throughout the Middle East and Turkey.  A lot of Greek cuisine has a heavy emphasis on lamb, eggplant, olive oil and heavy spices, and is actually quite similar to many Middle Eastern dishes.  There are only slight differences in some of these dishes.  A proud Greek might acknowledge the similarities, but will likely insist that these dishes originated in Greece and were then brought to the different regions.  One such dish is “dolmathes” (pronounced “dol-MA-thes”), or stuffed grape leaves.  The name comes from the Turkish word “dolma” which means “to stuff.”

A 1983 article in the New York Times about the history of grape leaves does, in fact, credit the Greeks for this dish.  It also indicates that it was most likely Alexander the Great who brought it to the Middle East when he conquered Thebes: “Food became so scarce that the Thebans cut what meat they had into little bits and rolled it in grape leaves.”  The article goes on to say that “later, it has been suggested the Byzantines refined and spiced the preparation and filled not only grape leaves but leaves of other vines as well…”  This would then justify the different variations of this dish in different cultures.

In Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine, dolmathes can be any of various stuffed vegetable dishes.  Most common, however, is a dish made of grape leaves, stuffed with a lemon-flavored mixture of rice, onion, and frequently, ground lamb.  Although you can exclude the meat and eat them cold as an appetizer with yogurt, Greek-style dolmathes with lamb are served hot as a main course with an avgolemono sauce made of egg and lemon juice.

The recipe I include below, is a variation of this.  I used ground turkey because that’s what I had.  There are so many variations to this recipe, that I suggest using whatever meats, grains (yup, even quinoa), spices, and herbs that you like.  The point is to understand the preparation and cooking technique when making dolmathes.

Dolmathes are very time- and labor-intensive to make, so if you decide to make a large quantity, they can be stored in the refrigerator for several days, or frozen.

Stuffed Grape Leaves with Avgolemono Sauce (Dolmathes Me Avgolemono)

(to be served as a main dish, probably serves about 4)

  • 1/2 jar of large grape leaves in brine
  • 1 lb ground meat of your choice
  • 1/2 cup uncooked rice
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp dried mint
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • Juice of one fresh lemon
  • Zest of one fresh lemon
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • About 4 cups of chicken broth or water

Optional:  To make the grape leaves easier to work with and to remove some of the briny-ness, bring a large pot of water to a boil and then turn off the heat.  Carefully unroll the leaves (but do not separate) and place in the hot water for 2-3 minutes.  Remove the leaves and place them in a bowl and cover with cold water until they have cooled.  Place the leaves to drain in a colander.

Saute the onions and uncooked rice in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until the onions are softened, but not browned.  In a bowl, combine the onions, rice, ground meat, remaining olive oil, mint, oregano, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Mix well with your hands.

Gently separate one grape leaf and place it, shiny side down, on a work surface or a large plate.  Place one heaping tablespoon of filling on the leaf at the point where the stem joined the leaf.  Fold up the bottom of the leaf over the filling, then the right and left sides towards the middle, overlapping one side over the other and pulling in a bit to make sure it’s tightly folded in.  Then roll up the leaf.  The roll should be firm, but not too tight, as the filling will expand during cooking.  Repeat until all of the filling has been used.  As you are rolling, set aside any torn leaves that are not suitable for stuffing.  You’ll use them as part of the cooking process in a different way.

Place any torn, unused leaves that you have on the bottom of the pot.  This will prevent the bottom layer of dolmathes from possibly burning.  Place the dolmathes on top, packing them closely together (but not “squished”) with the seam side facing down.  Layer them until they’re all in the pot.  Place more unused leaves on the top and press down gently in order to ensure that the dolmathes don’t unroll during cooking.  Add enough broth or water to the pot to cover about 2/3 or so of the grape leaves.

Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and continue to simmer for approximately one hour.  They’re done once the rice appears to be fully cooked.

If you’re also making avgolemono sauce, add it to the dolmathes about 10 minutes before you anticipate them to be finished cooking.

  • 2 eggs, separated
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Some hot broth/water from the pot

Beat or whisk the egg whites until foamy.  Beat in the yolks, lemon juice and 2-3 ladles of hot broth.  (Adding the hot broth to the eggs will raise the temperature of the sauce so that when you pour it into the pot, the eggs won’t curdle and become scrambled eggs.)   Continue to beat or whisk.  Carefully add the avgolemono sauce to the dolmathes and continue to cook for another ten minutes or so.

A Little Cheese Plate in One Bite

Wondering why things look a bit different around here? Well, it’s a new year, so I thought I’d give the site a bit of a facelift. Change is good. While I liked the previous theme, I didn’t think it felt right for a food blog. It was too “serious”. So I have been experimenting with some other themes. This current one seems a little more relaxed. However, I am still experimenting with others, so more changes may come.

I made these little cuties over the holidays. (The pictures aren’t that sharp because I took them with my cell phone instead of my camera.) They’re the perfect combination of sweet and savory, a little cheese plate wrapped up in one little bite. They’re a great appetizer and would be great for a wine or cocktail party.

They are so quick and simple to make and contain only 5 ingredients. While the recipe calls for fig preserves, you can use whatever you like or have on hand. I refrigerated the dough before rolling it out because I felt it was too soft, and it worked perfectly.

Fig and Blue Cheese Savouries

(Adapted from a recipe found on Food52)

Makes about 3 dozen

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 4 oz blue cheese, crumbled
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3 tbsp fig preserves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the flour, butter, blue cheese, and a few grinds of black pepper in a food processor. Process until the dough comes together and starts to form a ball. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to pull it together. Roll it out to approximately 1/8 inch with a floured rolling pin. Cut rounds out of the dough with a floured 1-inch cutter and place the rounds on the baking sheet.

Using the back of a round half-teaspoon measure or your knuckle, make an indentation in the top of each dough round. Spoon about 1/4 tsp of fig preserves into each indentation, using your finger to push the preserves as best as you can into the indentation.

Bake 10-15 minutes, until the preserves are bubbling and the pastry is light golden on the bottom. Cool on the baking sheet for at least 10 minutes, then place them on a wire rack to cool completely.

You can make these a day ahead and keep them in an airtight container in two layers separated by wax paper.

Calamari-Eggplant Salad

A while back, I had said that the best way to enjoy seafood was in its simplest form, without a lot of fuss — in other words, no frying, no extra sauces, no “crusts”.  Why mess with the beautiful flavor of fresh seafood?  Grilling, broiling and steaming, at least for me, are the way to go.  I like to take advantage of some of the world’s best seafood from right in our backyard .

This was my dinner tonight.  It’s a revised version of a dish that I had in Athens a few years ago.  The original was made with octopus.  While I am not a huge fan of the chewy texture of octopus (believe me, I have tried many, many times to like it), fresh calamari is a nice alternative. 

Serve with nice, fresh crusty bread.

Fresh, cleaned whole calamari. Check out these bad boys!

 

Calamari and Eggplant Salad

(serves 2)

  • 1/2 lb fresh calamari/squid, cleaned
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 wine glass of wine
  • 2 small to medium sized eggplants
  • 1 medium size tomato, seeds removed and chopped into cubes
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • dried mint
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic or wine vinegar
  • salt, fresh pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of dried oregano
 
Eggplants:  Roast the eggplants in a 400 degree oven until cooked through, about 45 minutes.  They will become soft and mushy and charred. Let cool, peel the skin off of the eggplants and “rough chop” the pulp and place in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients.
 
Calamari: Bring a medium-sized saucepan of heavily salted water and one bay leaf to a boil.  Add the wine. Place the calamari (whole) into the water and poach until it is tender.
 
Chop the calamari and add to the eggplant mixture.  Mix all of the ingredients, adjust the seasonings if needed and enjoy.
 
(DP note: if you wish to use octopus instead, place the octopus and bay leaf in a saucepan on low heat to cook until it becomes very tender.  No liquid is required as the octopus will release its own liquid as it cooks. As soon as it is steamed and tender, increase the heat to high and add the wine, cooking for another 4-5 minutes.  Chop then add to the eggplant mixture.)
 

The finished dish

 

April is National Garlic Month

Did you know that April is National Garlic Month?  And that April 19th is National Garlic Day?

If you’re a lover of this ingredient, as am I, then it’s time to celebrate!   I use garlic as much as possible in my cooking, and always have at least two or three heads ready to go.

In addition to keeping vampires at a distance, garlic actually has medicinal properties.  My grandfather used to eat several cloves of garlic — raw!!! — every single day.  He lived to be 95.

While I probably wouldn’t go that far,  an enjoyable way to eat garlic is just by roasting it in the oven, and then spreading it on some toasted bread.

Just slice off the top of the head of garlic so that the individual cloves are revealed, drizzle with a little bit of olive oil, and add a little salt and pepper.  Enclose it in some foil and bake for about a half hour or so at 350 — the inside cloves need to get nice and soft — and then uncovered for about 10 more minutes  so that it develops a nice light caramel brown color. Squeeze the cloves out of the “skins” and spread on toasted bread.

Great idea for an appetizer for a dinner party….or maybe not.  If your guests aren’t as into garlic as you might be, you may just find yourself enjoying this all on your own….off to the side.