dolmas done right

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.

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Spoony Sundays #4

Easter is early this year. I barely noticed Palm Sunday creeping up on me until this morning, ushered in by the kids at church swishing green palm fronds in the air as they passed me in the aisles.

Usually, Easter brings a slight renovation of my taste buds (not to mention my health — cheap chocolate and hot crossed buns, anyone?) But an early, wintry Easter like this year’s has caused a tangle in the cravings department. Easter is a fresh green season — the joyous end to a sparse Lent, colour and springtime riding on the coattails of Holy Week. But when Easter sneaks up in March, divorced from new grass and sunshine, my associations get all mixed up. The gray skies and occasional snows taunt me with chili and hot chocolate, while the stores offer up impossibly green asparagus. The lilies look pretty, but out of place. Suddenly I realize how the supermarkets capitalize on the changes of seasons, and even our most beloved holy-days.

For this edition of Spoony Sundays, I followed a comment I received a few weeks ago on this blog. The commenter passed along a recipe for Greek Egg-Lemon Soup, or as we cultured folks might prefer to call it, Avgolemono. On our way to the grocery store however, I realized that I hadn’t copied down the recipe, let alone made a list. To save me from pure frustration upon returning home to cook the soup (“arghhhhh, we don’t have any garlic!?”), I dashed into the books section and grabbed a Reader’s Digest soup cookbook. There it was, my Avgolemono staring out at me from the page with its spartan list of ingredients.

This soup’s velvety richness is enough to warm you through the last grips of winter, while splashes of lemon zest and delicate spinach begin to tickle your tongue with spring. This soup is surprisingly satisfying given its humble ingredients; it’s as lean as a broth soup but twice as filling. I’d never heard of a Greek soup before, and being a long-time admirer of their cuisine, I just had to give it a try.

There’s also a bit of magic in watching this soup come together. Just when you think that all you’ve got in your pot is another boring broth, you whisk in the egg and egg whites and an opaque stew emerges. I can say now that the Greeks succeeded not only at civilization, philosophy, and baklava, but some pretty great things in bowls too.

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grown-up pizza pops

Aside from last night’s French rendezvous, this past week’s cuisine has transported us to the Mediterranean twice. Who needs a tropical holiday?

Saturday I whipped up some pizza dough from my Moosewood cookbook. I divided it into two, saving half for a future night of inspiration. Loosely following a pizza recipe from Cooking Light, we topped it with pesto, red onions, artichokes, prosciutto, mozzarella and feta cheese, for a light and crispy feast.

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But what to do with the other half of the dough? I’d always wanted to try calzones, those little Italian inspirations for the pizza pop (yet having so underrepresented it). I looked over a few fancy recipes online, but decided to go with what we had kicking around.

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They turned out perfectly crisp on the outside and nice and chewy inside, and when broken open, let out a burst of earthy tangy steam. The sheep’s milk feta we bought from our favourite Lebanese grocery importer Samir’s complimented the almost nutty hints from the steamed spinach. I concluded that I like cooked spinach better than fresh. So sue me.

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