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Photo by Judith Hausman
Wild grape vines grow like weeds where I live, climbing up over hedges, trees and rock outcroppings. Sometimes they even bear foxy-tasting little grapes at the end of the season. But in early summer, while the leaves are large but not yet toughened, I pick them to make dolmas. If you have table or wine grape leaves, all the better. Brined vine leaves are also available year round in jars anywhere there’s a community with Middle Eastern or Mediterranean heritage: Greek, Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Turkish, et cetera.
All these cuisines stuff vegetables and grape leaves with savory mixes of rice, nuts, herbs and often, but not necessarily, meat. The combinations and techniques vary slightly, so you can feel free to add your own touch. Try adding lemon rind, pomegranate seeds, scallions or red onion to the stuffing. My own are Persian-influenced because of the Iranian friend that taught me to make dolmas from the leaves of a rambling, old grape arbor in the backyard.
If you have large leaves and time to practice, you might be able to achieve the tidy, cylindrical pieces served in restaurants and even available canned. Mine were messy and round but they held together in cooking with the help of a well-placed toothpick.
The dolmas are often part of a meze, or appetizer platter, meant to be nibbled with an evening drink. On a summer night, you might serve them alongside chunks of feta cheese, an eggplant spread, a chickpea or cucumber salad, and some ouzo, raki, retsina or rosé. Actually, that’ll probably be enough for dinner!
If you have enough leaves to spare after this recipe, try this tip. When canning pickles, put a small vine leaf on top of each jar before sealing as a unique, subtle flavoring.
Yield: 12 dolmas
- 1 pound ground beef or lamb
- 1½ cup cooked brown or white rice
- 1/2 cup fresh herbs (a combination of parsley, basil, mint, chives, oregano, marjoram), chopped
- 5-6 T. olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup pistachios or pine nuts, chopped finely (optional)
- 1/4 cup raisins (optional)
- 12 large grape leaves, fresh or brined
- 1 T. lemon juice
- 1 tsp. sugar
Mix cooked rice, meat, herbs and 3 to 4 tablespoons oil. If the mix doesn’t stick together well, add a bit more oil.
Lay out one washed, damp leaf, stem facing toward you. Put 1 to 3 tablespoons of meat-rice mixture near stem end. Roll or pleat the leaf around mound, and secure with toothpick. Repeat with remaining leaves and mixture.
Careful layer the packets in a large heavy pot that can be covered. Drizzle lemon juice, water and some oil over and around packets. Cover pot and steam dolmas over low heat for about 15 minutes. Add more water if they seem to be sticking during cooking.
Mix remaining olive oil and lemon juice with sugar. Drizzle over dolmas before serving. Serve at room temperature.