This recipe has been on my to-do list since I got A Feast of Ice and Fire. I loved dolmas (dolmathes/dolmades in Greek; dolmas is the Turkish work) as a kid for their novelty as an hors d’oeuvre. These mostly-rice-stuffed grape leaves looked really weird and tasted pretty good. What more could you want? I balked at the recipe, though. The book promises it will only take 45 minutes prep time and about an hour of low-maintenance cooking, but I (correctly) suspected that that would be a wild underestimate in my case. Also, 45 minutes of prep time for only 20 dolmas? I generally have better things to do. However, when I stopped by Tony Caputo’s (a local store specializing in imported food) with my dad after the farmer’s market and noticed the jars of brined grape leaves sitting on the shelf…I thought I should give it a go, while my culinary resources are still above the norm for an early-twenties person. This is not a casual weeknight recipe. I was going to make these for dinner tonight and ran out of time (fortunately, they can be made up to 3 days in advance, according to the cookbook authors), so the actual stuffing and rolling and cooking had to wait until after dinner. The prep time was more like 1.5 hours than 45 minutes, though a lot of it was hands-off and it went much faster once my mother stepped in to help. They’re cooking as I write this, so the “was it all worth it” will have to wait for the next paragraph. Even if they’re the most delicious thing in the world, however, I could only condone making these if you’re feeling ambitious and have lots of time between opening that first jar of grape leaves and serving. Ok, the moment of truth has passed, and I’d say they are pretty darn good! Perhaps a little sweet for my taste, which often seems to be the case for recipes from this cookbook. I’d maybe halve the raisins and increase the amount of rice and mushrooms next time to cut the sweetness. Also, I’d try adding some region-appropriate spices (Mediterranean, that is, not Dorne); sumac, oregano, paprika and/or allspice might be good.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
Adapted from: A Feast of Ice and Fire
Yield: about 50 dolmas
1 pint jar brined grape leaves, drained
1 large onion, minced
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp hot pepper (e.g. fresh jalapeno), finely minced
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
10-15 crimini or button mushrooms, minced
1/2 lb ground lamb
2 handfuls (~1 cup) raisins, chopped (may reduce to 1/2 c)
2 c cooked rice
[Spices: 1 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp paprika, 1/8 tsp each cinnamon, allspice, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom]
1 can chicken stock
Juice of 1 lemon
Carefully remove the leaves from the jar; they will be tightly rolled and squeeze in and can rip when you pull them out. Unroll the leaves and gently peel them apart. Place them in a large bowl, cover them with boiling water, and soak for 30 minutes. Rinse with cold water to remove some of the brine. (You may need to repeat this process if they are very salty.)
In a skillet over medium heat, saute the onion in the oil until the pieces begin to caramelize. Add the hot pepper, black pepper, mushrooms, and optionally, a dash of salt. Cook for just a few minutes, until the mushrooms are soft. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Add contents of skillet to a bowl along with the raw ground lamb, raisins, and rice (and spices, if using), mixing everything together. Don’t cook this mixture, just blend it well.
Choose a grape leaf to fill and lay it on a work surface, vein side up. You may wish to use kitchen scissors to snip off the stem. Place about 1.5 Tbsp of the meat mixture near the stem end, then fold in the end and sides and neatly roll up the packet. Repeat until all the filling is gone. If you have a steamer basket, place it in the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed pan and arrange as many filled rolls as will fit in a snug layer on top. If not, line the bottom of the pan with unstuffed grape leaves and make a snug layer of stuffed leaves on top. Squeeze the juice of half the lemon over the layer of rolls. Put down more unstuffed leaves, then place a second layer of rolls on top, positioned perpendicular to those in the previous layer. When all the rolls are in the pot, pour in the stock, then drizzle the remaining lemon juice over the grape leaves. If they are any leaves left over (I had a TON of leaves left over), place them on top of the rolls. [The original recipe calls for setting a heatproof dish directly on top of the rolls to keep them pressed down. I did not find this was necessary, but I probably depends on your grape leaves.]
Cover the pot with a lid and simmer slowly over medium-low heat to 45 minutes to an hour, or until the leaves are tender, the meat is cooked, and the filling is soft; you may need to remove one to test for doneness. When the rolls are done, let them cool to room temperature.
These can be made up to 3 days ahead, then taken out of the fridge 1 or 2 hours before serving. They can also be reheated to room temperature in the microwave.
Serving suggestions: pairs well with olives, feta cheese, dates, dry red wine. Notes: the original recipe calls for 1 pint jar of grape leaves per 20 dolmas (in all other respects, I’ve recorded a double recipe here. Might as well make a big batch, right?). I don’t know what kind of grape leaves the original authors were using, but I only used a little over half a jar of grape leaves for about 50 dolmas, and now I have an absurd number of leftover grape leaves. (Help!) Moral of the story: use common sense when determining quantities of brined grape leaves to purchase.