Dolmades Nistisimi

Lenten Grape Leaves Stuffed with Rice

TANGY rice-stuffed grape leaves are served throughout Greece and the Middle East. While those of northern and mainland Greece tend to be more complex, with pine nuts and various spices, the simple fennel-and-mint-scented grape leaves of the islands have a clear flavor that brings to mind the aromas of summer. The recipe is my adaptation of a dish that Kalliopi Delios, from Avgonima, Chios, serves as a meze.

Her grape leaves are never served warm, as being prepared a day ahead allows their taste to develop. “I always make them on a Friday afternoon, let them cool in the pot and store in the refrigerator overnight. Then they are ready to be served as a meze during the weekend,” Kalliopi told me. Like most Greek women, she uses fresh or home-frozen grape leaves, and that makes all the difference. If you can get even a few fresh leaves, use them as flavoring, layering them between the dolmades. Fresh leaves need to be blanched in boiling water for about 3 minutes, while frozen ones can be used directly after thawing.

In Rhodes, Lenten stuffed grape leaves are still made with bulgur, as in the old days, before rice became readily available.

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Ingredients

  • 1 8-ounce jar brine-packed grape leaves, or half a 16-ounce jar, drained
  • 3 cups chopped onions
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped
  • 5 scallions (white and most of the green parts), finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
  • 1 cup medium-grain rice, such as Arborio
  • 1 cup chopped fresh dill
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • About 1 cup water
  • ⅓–½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
  • 2 lemons, cut into wedges
  • Thick sheep’s milk yogurt or Drained Yogurt, optional

Method

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully separate the grape leaves and blanch them, in batches, for about 1 minute, in the boiling water. Rinse with cold water and drain.

In a large bowl, combine the onions, fennel, scallions and salt and work the mixture between your hands to wilt the vegetables. Stir in the rice, dill, mint, ½ cup of the oil and plenty of pepper.

Line the bottom of a large pot with the smaller and/or torn grape leaves. Place a large leaf, vein side up, on a work surface, with the stem toward you. Cut off the stem with scissors. Place about 1 tablespoon of the filling near the stem. Fold the two sides of the leaf over the filling. Fold over the bottom and roll up the leaf tightly like a cigar. Place seam side down in the pot. Continue with the remaining leaves, placing the dolmades tightly next to each other. When the bottom of the pot is filled, make a second layer.

Pour the water, the remaining ½ cup oil and the lemon juice over the dolmades. The liquid should almost cover them; if it does not, add a little more water. Place an inverted heatproof plate over the dolmades to keep them from unrolling as they cook. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. Remove from the heat. Let the dolmades cool completely. Refrigerate overnight. To serve the dolmades, bring to room temperature. Arrange on a plate and serve, accompanied by lemon wedges or thick yogurt, if using.

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