Stuffed vine leaves, known in Greece as dolmades, are the ultimate sharing food both in terms of the cooking and the eating.
In my late teens I was lucky enough to chaperone a young deaf woman, Jenny, to visit her parents in a small village near Thessaloniki, northern Greece. The talk of the village, we received many visitors one of which was Jenny’s aunt. She was very beautiful, smiley and didn’t speak a word of English. My Greek did not extend much further than yassas and Jenny communicated solely through sign language. Despite our language barriers, the full day sat around the kitchen table together preparing the evening meal remains a fond memory. Between the chopping, stuffing, rolling, and the coffee and ouzo breaks we shared warmth, laughter and enjoyed the experience of being in each other’s company all without the assistance of spoken word. Cooking together and eating together really can be the great leveller.
Time consuming rather than difficult, making the stuffed vine leaves is more enjoyable the more helpers you have. This version owes a big thanks to Elizabeth Mars vegetarian stuffed grape vine leaves recipe on her excellent blog The Back Yard Lemon Tree, in which she advocates the use of 2 chopped onions for creating a melt in the mouth texture.
Makes 25-30 leaves
- 200g short grain rice
- 1 pack fresh or preserved vine leaves
- 40g pine nuts
- 1 unwaxed lemon
- 3 tsp fennel seeds
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 120ml olive oil plus extra for frying
- 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
- Small bunch dill, finely chopped
- Small bunch mint, leaves finely chopped
- Small bunch parsley, leaves finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
- 475ml water
Rinse the rice and soak in a bowl of cold water for 45 minutes prior to cooking.
Plunge the vine leaves into boiling water for 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and then to a colander to drain.
Toast the pine nuts in a dry, non-stick pan for a minute or two until they begin to brown and set aside.
Grate the zest from the lemon, set aside, and then cut the lemon into thin slices.
Grind the fennel seeds using a pestle and mortar or spice grinder.
Fry the onion in olive oil until soft then add the drained rice. Keep stirring, adding a little more olive oil, and fry on a low heat for 10 minutes until the rice starts to turn translucent.
Combine the rice and onion mix with the ground fennel seeds, chilli flakes, lemon zest, toasted pine nuts, dill, mint, parsley and garlic. Season well adding extra salt as the flavour will be diluted as the rice cooks and expands.
Lay the vine leaf out flat, vein side up, and place a heaped teaspoon of the rice mixture at the stalk end of the leaf. Fold over the bottom of the leaf to cover the mixture. Fold the sides of the leaf and roll up. Repeat the process until you run out of mixture. You’ll end up making around 25-30.
Lay most of the remaining vine leaves at the bottom of a heavy based pan leaving aside 3 or 4, then add your first layer of stuffed vine leaves packing them in so they are fairly snug.
Add a scant layer of lemon slices and then begin your next layer of the stuffed vine leaves. Continue this process until all the leaves are packed in. Add a final scant layer of lemon slices and pour over the olive oil and the water. Lay the few remaining vine leaves on top.
Sit a plate on top of the leaves to keep them from fidgeting around too much during the cooking.
Pop a lid on the pan and cook at a very gentle simmer for 1 hour.
Once cooked, remove the pan from the heat and leave the cooked vine leaves to rest a while. The vine leaves will become firmer as they start to cool and will then be easier to transfer to the serving plate. Serve hot or cold. Delicious with a really minty tzatziki.