THIS UNUSUAL combination of meatstuffed grape leaves simmered with dried beans comes from the Sephardic cooks of the island of Rhodes. In a lovely book,
At the beginning of World War II, there were about 2,000 Jews living in Rhodes. But on July 24, 1944, in collaboration with
Place the beans in a large pot, add cold water to cover by at least 4 inches and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat.
Drain the beans, cover with fresh cold water, add the onion, salt and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the beans are almost tender. Drain the beans and discard the bay leaf and onion.
In a large, deep skillet (see Note), heat the oil over medium-high heat and sauté the fennel, onion and pancetta, if using, until the vegetables are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Stir in the drained beans and remove from the heat.
In a food processor, pulse the fennel, onion and scallions until finely chopped. In a large bowl, combine the beef, fennel mixture, tomato, rice, pepper or pepper flakes and salt to taste and mix well with your hands.
Place 1 grape leaf, vein side up, on a work surface, with the stem toward you. Cut off the stem with scissors. Place 1 rounded 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 (see illustrations). Place seam side down on the beans and continue with the remaining leaves and filling. You should have 28 to 30 stuffed grape leaves.
Add the lemon juice and a little more stock if needed to almost cover the grape leaves. Cook for 30 minutes more, or until the beans are tender and the filling is cooked through.
Discard the top leaves, if any, and carefully transfer the stuffed grape leaves to a platter; cover to keep warm. With a slotted spoon, transfer the beans to a serving bowl and cover to keep warm. You should have about 1½ cups sauce remaining in the pan. If there is more, boil over high heat to reduce; if there is less, add some stock and bring to a boil. Taste and correct the seasonings. For a thicker sauce, stir the cornstarch mixture into the sauce and cook briefly, stirring, until thickened.
Place 4 dolmades on each plate, with
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