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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a few small threads

It may not feel much like spring, but eating flowers might be a provisional substitute for smelling them. It will do, for awhile. This flower, or rather its papery crimson stigmas, has been sitting in my cupboard for almost a year now, summoning me to release its captive aromas.

It is the rare and venerable saffron of which I speak. An exquisite and expensive spice that, were it not for a trip to India, might have never wound up in my hands, let alone my dinner.

Finally it was time. I reached behind the basil, cayenne and turmeric into the shadows of my spice shelf where the clear case sat, modest as a box of matches. Almost one year ago now I carried that tiny treasure chest all the way home from a spice stall in a Jodhpur market. The experts say I should’ve used it by now, but sometimes I forget what good things I have and how to best appreciate them.

I knew I had tasted saffron before, but could not recall its particular feel on my tongue or the way it whirled madly between nostrils and tastebuds. I wanted to use it right, and I was afraid. The delicately canvas of rice, or something more complex? Would sweet or savoury best highlight its essence? Would meat overpower? Which vegetable would be most companionable?

And then I stopped worrying and remembered that when a dish is born out of a desire to celebrate and create, it matters not that it’s perfect but that it brims with pleasure. As I tossed a pinch of this valuable spice into a pan of humble chickpeas and tomatoes simmering gaily on the stove, it just seemed right. The noble saffron threads kissed the peasant stew, and I bent over the aroma expectantly. My Kashmiri saffron would taste just fine, while reminding me of the rare things in this world: from love and camaraderie to being able to taste the threads from a crocus that grow only three per flower.

 

Served with basmati rice, it may not have been authentically Spanish, but with some crab cakes leftover from a great party on the weekend, it made a simple and nourishing meal. In the future I might crown it with some grilled prawns or scallops. With my last bite came a wave of anticipation for weaving those frail red threads again and again.

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