I was out in the garden the other day when my neighbours popped up from behind the fence. They were trimming their vine, they said. Did I want some leaves?
There seem to be as many variations on these stuffed vine leaves as there are Greek families. My platonic ideal of a dolma is lemony, herby, spiced but not overwhelmingly so and studded with solid little pinenuts and plump sultanas. I like the versions with meat but have kept these veggie as the real pleasure of the things is textural: soft rice ready to burst out of its taut leaf wrapper.
I make no pretence of authenticity here. My recipe contains saffron in an attempt to recreate a version my husband James and I ate on the last night of our honeymoon at a lovely restaurant called Ochre in Oia, Santorini’s prime spot for sunset-botherers. They specialised in putting a modern twist on traditional Greek classics. I don’t generally think it’s a cuisine that benefits from being fancied-around with, but they did it quite sensitively and I was particularly taken with their dolmades.
I got some good advice about preparing the fresh leaves from Mama's Taverna. They give off a pleasant lemony smell when blanched and aren’t too hard to roll
It’s also worth noting that tomorrow marks the start of National Picnic Week (no, me neither, but any excuse…). The best kind of picnic foods (pies, Scotch eggs etc.) are self-contained so they can be picked up and eaten without plates or cutlery and I think these would make an admirable addition to any rug-based dining occasion.
- 60 (or so) vine leaves
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 200g rice
- 50g pine nuts
- 50g sultanas
- generous pinch saffron
- 1 lemon
- handful dill fronds, finely chopped
- handful parsley leaves, finely chopped
- 1 litre vegetable stock
- Preheat your oven to 200C/gas mark 6
- If you’re using fresh leaves, have a sinkful of cold water and a pan of boiling water ready. Snip the leaves off their stalks, wash them in the sink, stack into piles of roughly 20 and blanch for a minute. Put them back into the the cold water then drain and set aside. (Piling them up before blanching means they’re orderly when it comes to rolling.)
- Soften the onion in the oil over a low heat. Don’t let it brown.
- Meanwhile toast the pinenuts in a dry frying pan over a medium heat. It will only take a couple of minutes so watch carefully and take them off as soon as they begin to go golden and smell nutty.
- Put the sultanas and saffron threads in a small bowl and add enough boiling water to cover.
- When the onion is translucent and tender (about 10 minutes) add the garlic and spices. Let them cook for a minute until fragrant.
- Add the rice, stir to coat it in oil and cook for another five minutes then add the pinenuts, the sultanas in their saffron water and 300ml water.
- Put a lid on the pan and let the rice cook for about 15 minutes. You want it soft but still a bit chalky in the middle. Check as it goes and add more water if necessary.
- When the rice is ready stir in the lemon zest, fresh herbs and a few grinding of black pepper.
- Wait until cool enough to handle and then make your rolls. Lay a vine leaf on a chopping board and put a small amount of filling just above where the stalk used to be. A teaspoonful is plenty for a small leaf, a big one can take up to two. Roll once from the bottom then fold in the sides before continuing to the top. They should be firm but not too tight as the rice will continue to swell whilst cooking.
- Lay them in a neat layer in a baking dish. Anthony Worral Thompson puts a layer of sliced tomatoes underneath to stop them sticking which I think is a nice idea.
- When they’re all done, squeeze over the lemon juice, add enough stock so the dolmades are just submerged, cover with foil and cook for 45 minutes.
- Allow to cool then drizzle with more oil and serve with tzatziki.
Ifs And Ands
- If you want meat dolmades then add 200g mince just after the garlic and spices and brown before adding the rice.
- Consider other herbs, especially oregano or mint.
- Chopped walnuts would make an interesting, slightly more bitter, alternative to pine nuts.
- No vine leaves? Try savoy cabbage.
- A tabbouleh-style bulgar wheat filling would be lighter than rice.