I first tasted dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in Greece. I was 19 and still more or less uneducated in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.
My friend and I were sharing a white stucco flat on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian woman named Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. I was a sucker for anything offered to me in that accent — or any accent, for that matter. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame-seeds.
In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones packed in excessive amounts of oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a cool Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do ya.
And then — thank Zeus! — along came my friend Susan. Being schooled herself in these mysterious dolmatic ways, she passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.
Grape leaves should be easy to find in a well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, but the choice was rather arbitrary in front of a shelf full of them. Grape leaves must be one of those foods, like the “single use appliance,” that doesn’t seem to have many other uses. I declare these, however, to be wise stewardship of the leaves that nurture our wine-producing grapes the world over. If they’re good enough for grapes, they’re good enough for me.
These are an easy substitute for the endless chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish- handling of sushi. They are deliciously cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of Sangria, or to a rollicking twilight tapas bash. Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, and not someone else’s Royal Daulton.
Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)
40-45 grape leaves, in brine (available at Middle Eastern or specialty grocery stores)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3-4 cups white onion, finely chopped
zest of one lemon
3 Tbsp fresh chopped mint (approximately)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1 cup uncooked white rice (not brown, it’s not starchy enough and won’t hold together in the rolls)
1/2 cup boiling water
3 Tbsp currants or finely chopped apricots (approximately)
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
juice of one lemon
- Drain the grape leaves and place them in a large bowl. Pour just enough boiling water over the leaves and to cover them, and let them soak for about 10 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Remove stems just where they hit the leaf.
- Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon zest, mint, all of the spices, and salt to taste. Add the uncooked rice and stir until it is well coated in oil. Add the boiling water and stir for another minute. Add the currants and pine nuts and stir to combine. Remove from heat.
To make the rolls:
- Lay one grape leaf vein side up and stem towards you. Put about 2 teaspoons of the filling on the lower section of the leaf. Roll the stem end over the filling, and then fold each side in. Gently but firmly, continue to roll the leaf up to the tip until you have a nice neat roll. (You want it tight enough to hold, but not so tight that the leaf will rip. Remember: the rice will expand inside.) Repeat with all 40-45 grape leaves, or until filling is used up.
- Arrange the rolls in a single layer in the bottom of a large skillet. (If your skillet is too small to fit them all, separate the layers with a layer of grape leaves.) Drizzle with lemon juice and a few tablespoons of olive oil and add boiling water to cover. Cover the leaves with a heat-proof plate or lid that will sit flat against the top of the rolls. Simmer (bubbling just slightly) for 45 minutes to an hour. Fish the rolls out of the water and transfer to a serving platter.
- Serve at room temperature with tzatzkiki (plain yogurt mixed with garlic and cucumber)
- The rolls will keep well in the fridge for about 4 days.