I know, I know. I thought I was back on the path to blogging regularly, but somehow two weeks have gone by without a new post. Between worrying about the election and traveling many miles on the weekends for various family commitments, I’ve been pressed for both time and energy. But in the midst of all the craziness, I have some good news: My sister Melissa and her boyfriend Nedim are engaged! You may remember these wacky kids from several restaurant adventures I’ve written about, as well as an exhausting ravioli dinner last year. Needless to say, I am thrilled for the happy couple.
Last weekend my parents threw a party to celebrate the engagement, and my mother asked Jim and I to contribute an appetizer. After some thought, Jim suggested that we make a dish inspired by Nedim’s Turkish heritage. I immediately agreed, so we pulled out Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food and started flipping through the pages.
We had a few criteria for our appetizer, beyond its necessary Turkish roots. First of all, Jim and I knew that my mother would be busy preparing the rest of the party food in the oven, and we wanted to stay out of her way. We needed to stay out of her way. (Trust me.) Our appetizer had to travel well, as we would be transporting it from our home in Brooklyn, and it had to be unobtrusive in my mother’s kitchen. We decided that a cold dish would be best.
We quickly settled on making Roden’s cold stuffed grape leaves, which she also calls dolma. The word dolma actually refers to any stuffed vegetable dish of Middle Eastern origin, but grape leaves are one of the best known. Meat dolma are hot, while vegetarian dolma are usually served cold or at room temperature. After buying some preserved grape leaves at Sahadi’s, Jim and I settled in for an exciting Friday night at home, rolling and stuffing about 70 leaves with a fragrant mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice.
While the process of preparing the grape leaves was time-consuming, it actually wasn’t stressful or exhausting. Jim and I had fun methodically stuffing and rolling the cigar-shaped tubes as the evening wore on. Once rolled, the leaves were cooked in a bath of olive oil and lemon juice, resulting in the glistening surface and smooth texture typical of this traditional mezze. Jim and I tasted one that night, biting through the delicate layers of supple, slightly briny leaves to the cool, silky rice and Middle Eastern spices within. While the coating of olive oil, lemon juice, and sugar imparted a luxurious sweetness to the rolls, the secret to this recipe was the mint; it infused the leaves with a zesty lightness that I adored.
I’m pretty sure that everyone at the party enjoyed our contribution to the appetizers, including my sister and her fiancé. I was surprised by how many people referred to the leaves as dolma, as I had never heard the term before reading the recipe. My cousin’s Greek husband even said they were the best he ever tasted. So, welcome to the family, Nedim. I hope you liked them as well!
Recipe for Cold Stuffed Grape Leaves (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) This recipe makes about 70 grape leaves, perfect for a big party or celebration.
- 1 16-ounce jar of preserved grape leaves
For the filling:
- 2 1/2 cups Carolina long-grain rice
- 6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
- 1 very large white onion, finely diced
- 4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 4 tablespoons dried mint
- 1/2 teaspoon dried cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- salt and pepper
For the pans/cooking time:
- 2 or 3 plum tomatoes (sliced)
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Juice of 2 lemons
Bring a full kettle of water to a boil. Place the preserved grapes leaves in a large bowl, and try to separate the leaves as much as possible. Pour the boiling water over the leaves, making sure that the water reaches between the layers of leaves. Let the leaves soak for 20 minutes. Drain. Using fresh, cold water, change the water twice. Set aside.
Put another kettle of water on the stove to boil. In another large bowl, pour the boiling water over the rice. Stir well, then rinse the rice under cold water. Add the tomatoes, onion, parsley, mint, cinnamon, and allspice to the rice. Stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
At this point, you are ready to stuff the grape leaves. Remove a leaf from the bowl and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Blot it dry with a paper towel if it seems too wet. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf, near the stem end at the base of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.
Mix the olive oil with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add the sugar and fresh lemon juice. Stir. Set aside.
Line the bottom of 2 large, high-sided sauté pans or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. You can create a second layer of leaves if you need to. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired.
Stir the olive oil/lemon juice mixture, and pour it over the leaves, evenly dividing the liquid between the pans if using more than one. Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pans, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Cool the leaves in the pans before removing the rolls. Once completely cooled, you can refrigerate the rolls. Serve cold or at room temperature. Enjoy!