When the heat kicks in ’round these parts, Ionah’s response, lately, has been — along with sipping San Pellegrino water on ice with a splash of coconut vinegar and a lime wedge — to browse the internet for real estate listings in Maine. A beautiful country in the summer. Cheaper than Colorado, but those massive wood piles out back scare the Charlies out of me. My response is to take a leaf from the Greeks, who know their heat, and make a batch of dolmas — stuffed grape leaves.
They’re usually stuffed with rice— Italian Arborio or short grain brown rice works well— and often ground beef or lamb. I season the cooked rice with fresh dill, sautéed onion, preserved lemon, pine nuts, currants and sometimes green olives. Then I stuff the rice mixture in brined grape leaves and bake for 45 minutes in chicken or vegetable stock.
You can cook them on a stove top, but I prefer the oven — early morning works best to let the kitchen cool down and once they’re ready, store them in the fridge and eat them whenever you need a cooling snack. Good on their own or great dipped in yogurt mint sauce, or make a meal of them by adding hummus, radishes, cucumbers, salted tomato slices, hard-boiled egg, a wedge of feta cheese, a dish of olives, boiled beets, a young lettuce salad. The list goes on.
You can buy grape leaves brined in a jar and ready to go at any Greek or international market. Or, if you comb your neighborhood for unkept vines, equipped with nothing but a Chinese scissors and a used plastic bag, you might liberate enough leaves to make a small batch. Or, conversely, you could knock and ask before you pick on private land.
I planted a grape-vine in the garden years ago but never thought untill now to use the vine leaves for dolmas. if you have access to an unsprayed grape-vine, it’s the way to go. Best to harvest them in late spring before the leaves get too big and tough.
Gather 60 leaves about 4 inches wide. Cut off the stems and plunge a bunch of 6 at a time into boiling liberally salted water for about 10 seconds. Immerse in cold water, put them in a strainer and drain on paper towels. Continue until done. Roll in tight bunches of twenty or so and pack in a freezer bag and freeze. I usually end up with three bunches.
When you’re ready to go, cook a cup of rice and add your seasonings— for this batch I used sautéed diced onion and trumpet mushroom, walnuts, fresh dill, sumac, Aleppo pepper, preserved lemon and some mint pesto that was hanging around.
Drop a tablespoon on a spread-out upturned leaf (shiny side down) and fold the sides over each other and wrap an end and roll it tight. It might take a few tries, stick with it, if it gets a little tedious, put on some music, but not Zorba the Greek. Try Radiohead instead, the intensity helps concentration.
Fill a baking dish snugly with the dolmas and pour hot chicken stock all over. You don’t have to cover, but come close. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 400F/200C for 45 minutes or untill the stock has evaporated. Cool it down in the fridge.
For twenty leaves I cooked one cup of rice mixed with perhaps a quarter cup each of sautéed diced onions and mushrooms. To this add a tablespoon of chopped preserved lemon. Same for walnuts, finely diced dill and (optional) pesto. Add half a teaspoon of sumac and Aleppo pepper. Salt if you need it. The lemons provided me with enough. Mix it up and stuff into grape leaves. I didn’t keep exact documentation here but you get the idea.