May it Please the Palate: Stuffed Grape Leaves

Stuffed grape leaves are a staple of Greek or Middle Eastern cooking. Nothing makes me smile more than the memory of my mother, stopping the car at the sight of wild grape vines, picking a bunch to save for her next batch. She always called them "yaprakia," a regional variation. But most Greeks call them "dolmathes."

By whatever name, the technique of rolling and cooking stuffed grape leaves is a fundamental skill that any self-styled Greek cook must have, along with layering and folding phyllo dough. Unfortunately, it is one that has eluded me. I make good, but not great dolmathes; that is why I have never before posted a recipe in this column.

My favorites are fat ones stuffed with lamb or beef, rice, and pine nuts, topped with an avgolemeno (egg/lemon) sauce and fresh dill. Yet stubbornly, I've never made them that way. It would be too much like cheating, because it's ipso facto obvious those would taste great. (Kind of like not going wrong with a good hamburger.) But it's the vegetarian version that I want to nail, and just can't.

Most meatless versions include rice, onion, lemon, and dill. Some add lentils, toasted pine nuts, tomato, mint, or parsley. I do like the ones with the "snap" of plenty of onion and lemon. One recipe I perused required an eye-popping 6 large onions, and had a long list of raving online reviews--no doubt from the chef's bad-breathed family.

I've chosen a representative recipe from Tyler Lawrence of Food Network that adds the unusual twist of fennel. Feel free to substitute vegetable stock (I use "Better Than Bouillon") to make this truly vegetarian (and vegan).

Like my mother, you can also substitute fresh grape leaves for the ones in jars. Just make sure to blanch them in simmering water. It sure beats trying to get the tightly rolled pack of brined ones out of the narrow jar opening, which is like removing a ship from a bottle.

Folding and rolling these puppies is a bit like origami, but you'll get the hang of it. The ones that are torn or too small can be used to line the bottom of the pan.

Ingredients

* 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

* 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

* 1 small fennel bulb, halved, cored and diced

* 1 TSP grated lemon zest

* 1/2 cup pine nuts

* 1 cup long-grain rice

* 1 1/2 cups chicken stock

* 2 TBS finely chopped dill leaves

* 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

* Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

* 1 (8-ounce) jar grape leaves, rinsed and drained

* 2 lemons, juiced

Directions

To make the filling, coat a large sauté pan with 1/4 cup of the oil and place over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel and lemon zest and stir until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the pine nuts and rice, sauté for 2 minutes, stirring to coat. Pour in just 1/2 cup of the chicken stock and lower the heat. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente, about 10 minutes. Scrape the parboiled rice mixture into a bowl and add the dill and parsley; season with salt and pepper. Allow to cool. Now on to the grape leaves.

Bring a big pot of water to a simmer. If using fresh grape leaves, blanch them in the hot water for 5 minutes until pliable. Drain then trim the stems and any hard veins from the leaves. Pat dry with paper towels.

To assemble the dolmades, lay a grape leaf on a work surface, shiny-side down. Put up to 2 tablespoons of the rice filling near the stem end of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling, then fold both sides toward the middle, and roll up into a cigar - it should be snug but not overly tight because the rice will swell once it is fully cooked. Squeeze lightly in the palm of your hand to secure the roll. Repeat with remaining grape leaves and filling.

Place the dolmades in a large Dutch oven or wide deep skillet, seam-side down in a single layer. Pour the remaining cup of broth, remaining olive oil, and the lemon juice over the dolmades, the liquid should reach halfway up the rolls, add some water if necessary. Cover the pan and simmer over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, until the dolmades are tender when pierced with a fork. Serve warm, at room temperature or cool.

Garnish with lemon slices and chopped fresh dill, and serve up some pretty good grape leaves. But to make it truly great, add some cooked ground lamb and a generous pour of avgolemeno sauce. Well, anyway, that's what my mother would have done!

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Thu, Jun 13, 2013

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