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.

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Spanakopita…Eat Greek Tonight

Spanakopita is one of the most popular snacks in Greece.  It’s relatively healthy, tastes delicious and can be eaten anytime of the day…even for breakfast…cold…yum!

I made this for Thanksgiving and it was the first thing to go.

Spanakopita

Makes two 12×9 inch pans.  Make one for now and freeze the second one.

  • 3 lbs. spinach, chopped (you can substitute frozen, thawed well)
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4 large onions, diced
  • 2 bunches green onions, diced (incl. 4 inches green)
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped (or 3 tbsp dried parsley)
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 lb. cottage cheese (or ricotta)
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 lb. phyllo pastry sheets

Wash and drain the chopped spinach. If you use frozen spinach, thaw completely and squeeze out excess water. The spinach should be dry.

Heat the olive oil in a deep saute pan. Saute the onions and green onions until tender.

Add the spinach and parsley, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until the spinach is wilted and heated through.  If you’re using frozen spinach, cook until the excess moisture evaporates.  The spinach mixture should be on the dry side.  Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.

Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the feta, eggs, and cottage (or ricotta) cheese. Add the cooled spinach mixture and mix until well combined.

Combine the melted butter with the olive oil in a bowl. Using a pastry brush, grease two 9 x 12 rectangular pans.

Carefully remove the phyllo from the plastic sleeve. Most packages come in 12 x 18 inch sheets when opened fully. Using scissors or a sharp knife, cut the sheets in half to make two stacks of 9×12 inch sheets. To prevent drying, cover one stack with wax paper and a damp paper towel while working with the other.

Working quickly, Layer about 10 sheets on the bottom of the pan and brush each sheet with the butter/olive oil mixture. Add half of the spinach mixture in an even layer and press with a spatula to flatten.

Layer another 10 sheets on top of the spinach mixture, again brushing each sheet well with the butter/olive oil mixture. Repeat the process with the second pan.

Before baking, score the top layer of phyllo (making sure not to puncture filling layer) to enable easier cutting of pieces later.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until the spanakopita turns a deep golden brown. If the pita is frozen when you put it in the oven, you will need approximately 60 minutes cooking time. If it’s fresh, cook for approximately 40-45 minutes.   All ovens vary, so keep an eye on it.