July 29, 2022
The perfect finger food: Stuffed wild grape leaves (dolmades) By Merrie Witkin
When John Le Carre coined the phrase “ the constant gardener” as the title for his 2001 political thriller, he perfectly captured the essence of nurture and attention gardening entails, especially to keep encroaching invasive species or unwanted plants and weeds at bay. Among the tasks I do every year is to check for wild grapevines and cut them back where they threaten to invade flower beds or overwhelm shrubs and trees. Several years ago, while taking out my aggressions by pulling up vines growing around my native dogwoods, it occurred to me that the vines’ lovely large green leaves could make awesome dolmades, the stuffed cigar shaped dish popular in Greece and Turkey.
Stuffed grape and cabbage leaf dishes are popular throughout the Balkans, Caucasus and Eastern Mediterranean, but particularly renown in Greece (where the stuffed vine leaves are called “dolmades” or “dolmathes,” as the “d” is pronounced like a soft “th” sound) and Turkey, where they are called “dolmas” (which means something stuffed or filled). The filling can be seasoned rice and herbs, or a mixture of meat and rice, and served either at room temperature or warm. You can often find dolmades at the local Greek-owned diners or Greek restaurants throughout the Hudson Valley, where they are customarily made with preserved brined vine leaves from a jar or can. Made with fresh grapevine leaves, dolmades have a more delicate flavor that allows the filling to take center stage. And foraging for the leaves makes the dish even more fun to make!
Field Notes last discussed native grape vines in September of last year in the Species Spotlight. There are several species (Vitis spp.) native to our area which, nevertheless, can be invasive if not controlled. The photographs in that article show how to identify the grape vines by the leaf’s maple-like shape and the tendrils by which the vine attaches to tree and shrub branches and fences, which distinguish them from other trailing vines such as porcelain berry or Virginia creeper. Once you can identify the vines you will notice them everywhere. Midsummer is a great time to pick the leaves, before the grapes ripen and the leaves start to brown off or be attacked by insects. As with any foraging, know your source so you are safely picking pesticide-free leaves. Go early in the morning and pick the best large specimens, about the size of your palm with their stems attached, and if you don’t plan on using them the same day, freeze them as described below until you are ready to cook up a batch.
Stuffed wild grape leaves
This recipe is for a meat and rice stuffing and is adapted from a recipe by, and in consultation with, Chef Suzanne Hunter of Cuisine by Suzanne in Seattle (full disclosure, Suzanne is my sister). The recipe makes approximately 30-34 rolls. While traditionally made with ground lamb, that is not always available at local supermarkets (certainly not during the pandemic), and some may find the lamb flavor too strong. So when developing this recipe I tried ground turkey, which marries well with the other ingredients and highlights the flavors of the herbs and spices used. I have also made it with lamb, which results in a more traditional Mediterranean flavor, and with ground beef, which also works as a substitute.
Ingredients and utensils
You will need a heavy wide bottomed pot with lid to cook the stuffed leaves in, and a smaller ceramic or heatproof plate to help weigh down the stuffed leaves as they cook.
Pick about 34 large (about the size of your palm), unblemished grape leaves for stuffing, plus extra leaves to line the bottom of the pot in which the stuffed dolmades will be cooked. Pick them with their stems attached as this enables you to easily pick them up by their stems (which will be snipped off later when you are ready to stuff them). If you are not using the leaves that day, wash them in cool water and lay them on a clean kitchen towel and pat dry, then layer them between wax or freezer paper and freeze them in a large baggie until ready to use. At that time, take them out of the freezer and let them thaw.
If using the leaves fresh, wash them in cool water and then blanch them in a pot of unsalted boiling water for a minute or so until they are fully softened, then remove and shock them in very cold ice water to stop their cooking. Lay them out on a large kitchen towel and pat dry.
Once frozen, the thawed leaves do not need blanching, as freezing will have served the same function of softening the leaves (the frozen water crystals will cut through the plant cell walls).
For the stuffing mixture:
1 lb ground raw turkey or lamb
1/2 cup brown long grain or brown basmati rice (measured dry), soaked in cool water for 15-20 minutes
1/4 cup good quality olive oil
1 large onion, chopped finely
1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/3 cup currants, or chopped raisins if currents are not available
2 heaping tbsps each of finely chopped dill, mint and parsley
Juice of one lemon
1 1/2 tsps salt
1.5 tsps Ras al Hanout (a Moroccan spice blend)*
Freshly ground pepper (3/4 tsp or less, to taste)
Blend all of these ingredients together in a bowl.
*If you cannot find Ras al Hanout, you can substitute a mixture of ground coriander, cumin, allspice, paprika and a pinch of cinnamon, which can approximate the warmth of the Moroccan spice blend. Allspice has a strong flavor profile, so you may want to taste the spice mixture before adding them to the meat and rice mixture.
For the cooking pot:
1 lemon juiced
2 cups of chicken broth, plus extra as needed to keep rolls moist
For the dipping sauce:
Tzatziki sauce (homemade with yoghurt, garlic, chopped cucumber, lemon juice, dill and olive oil – or store bought), a traditional sauce made of greek yoghurt and minced fresh garlic, or a vinaigrette of fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.