When you talk about Greek food, usually people conjure up images of all those fantastic dishes using all the wonderful summer vegetables – the dishes familiar to holiday makers – moussaka, stuffed tomatoes and peppers.
Greek cuisine – kouzina – is extremely seasonal. There is always a real joy and sense of expectation for the next season’s ingredients. After the shiny, voluptuous tomatoes, courgettes with their delicious, delicate golden flowers still intact, aubergines of all different types – the big and bulbous, the long and stripy, the elongated purple – after all of the Summer’s glut there is a real pleasure when the autumn and winter produce starts to appear in the markets. The dishes forgotten since the previous winter, return to the cooks’ repertoire and there are some real gems.
So now in the heart of the winter, I love to cook and, above all eat, some of my favourites. One that I have really been hankering after is the wonderful dish, lahanodolmades or stuffed cabbage leaves.
Why do the English translations never do justice to these recipes! Stuffed cabbage leaves conjure up dreadfully dull and horribly virtuous chunks of soggy boiled cabbage!
But these Lahanodolmades are a sort of wonderfully fragrant vegetable wrap. The filling is made from rice and a little minced beef, flavoured with dill and parsley – the dish is finished with creamy egg and lemon sauce. The cabbage really has to be the ‘Turkish’ type found in ethnic grocers. These are very different to our English green or white cabbages – ours are too dense and ‘tight’ and it is impossible to release the individual leaves. The ‘Turkish’ variety is loose-leafed and the leaves are thinner. Some recipe books suggest that savoy cabbage is a suitable alternative, I disagree. The savoy cabbage is too strongly flavoured and will drown the subtlety of the dish.
A word about releasing the leaves – a task much easier than it sounds. First, with a sharp knife, score around the stem of the cabbage and ease out a bit of the core. Next, put he cabbage upside down in a large pan or bowl and pour over boiling water. You will see that the cabbage appears to ‘blossom’ and the leaves start to separate from each other. After a minute or so, carefully transfer the cabbage to drain in a colander until it is cool enough to handle. Your leaves are ready to fill.
For the filling
1/2 kg minced beef
250 gm long grain ‘easy cook’ rice (uncooked)
1 medium onion very finely chopped
2 tabs chopped parsley
2 tabs chopped dill
ground black pepper
1 medium tomato – grated with the coarse side of a grater
1 medium tomato – coarsely chopped
150 ml olive oil
100 gm butter
For the sauce
Juice of one lemon – start by adding half the juice and add more a little at a time if you think it’s needed.
Mix the mince, the rice, onion, parsley, dill and grated tomato in a bowl. Mix it well with your hands and add the olive oil and seasoning – about 2-3 teaspoons of salt is about right.
Put a small spoonful of the mixture at one side of a cabbage leaf and roll it into a bundle.
Do this until all the mixture and leaves are used up.
Butter a deep metal pan (it’s good to line the bottom of the pan with a leaf or two) and pack in the cabbage bundles – there must be no space between them. Place a few leaves over the top of the parcels.
Slowly add enough cold water to cover and also the chopped tomato – dot with any remaining butter. Carefully, place a heat-resistant plate on top – this holds everything in place whilst cooking.
Simmer, gently for about 40 minutes, ensuring that there is enough water in the pan so that it doesn’t boil dry.
At the end of the cooking time, gently lift off the plate and peel back the covering leaves. Lift out a cabbage parcel to see if the rice has cooked – a little more cooking may be needed.
When they are cooked allow to cool slightly while you make the mixture for the egg and lemon sauce.
Beat the eggs in a fairly large bowl with a pinch of salt. You need a good sized bowl as,eventually you will add most of the cooking liquid – not yet though !
Next gradually add the lemon juice, beating all the time. Now gradually add the warm cooking liquid to the egg and lemon mixture, beating all the time. This is really crucial as you don’t want the mixture to curdle. Beat in as much of the cooking liquid as possible.
Finally, pour the egg,lemon,liquor mixture back into the pan with the cabbage parcels and leave to stand – this will allow the sauce to thicken.
The only accompaniment you will need for this are slices of feta.