So that’s it, Christmas is over. You’ve cooked yourself stupid with baking and roasting. You’ve made the vasilópita, melomakárona and kourabiédes, you’ve cooked Christmas dinner, made the celebratory meal for New Year’s Eve and then, after ALL that, you have to start again!
This time, on the first day of the New Year, I wanted to make something as ‘un-Christmassy’ as possible – to go for a dish that used an ingredient that is as far away from the usual winter staples as possible, but also something that would not be compromised by being out of season. And so it was, on New Year’s Day, after a bracing walk in our local park, I went home to make Dolmadákia.
Dolmadákia (stuffed vine leaves) and here we go again with a translation that is so uninspiring – seeming to promise nothing more than those canned, dark green, slightly slimy aberrations offered on deli counters. The real-deal dolmadákia could not be more different or more beguiling.
I always wonder how it came about that someone somewhere thought that it would be a good idea to take a tender, young leaf wrap it, kimono-like, around a subtle mix of rice- maybe a little ground beef, herbs and finely chopped tomatoes – and after gentle poaching, serve with a subtle creamy-lemon sauce. THAT is culinary inspiration !
It is a delicacy that pops up all over the Middle East and the Balkans – ‘dolma’ meaning ‘stuffed thing’ in Turkish – so those lovely tomatoes and peppers that I talked about some time ago are called ‘dolma’ in Turkish. In the Greek island I know best, stuffed vine leaves are commonly known as ‘yaprákia‘ – from the Turkish word for ‘leaves’ – yet again, reminding us of that common Ottoman past. But these miracles of culinary magic pre-date the Ottoman Empire, reaching back to to ancient times. The ancient Greeks stuffed all sorts of leaves – fig, mulberry and even hazelnut. But, over the years, the vine dominated. I have no doubt that the supremacy of the vine leaf comes mainly from its fragrance; one that immediately releases the warmth and benevolence of mediterranean summer days. And so it was that, on a cold, English New Year’s Day, we ate gorgeous platefuls of sunny yaprákia.
I would be lying not to admit that making yaprákia is a bit fiddly, but once you get the hang of the folding and wrapping, the result is really satisfying. The crucial thing is to get good vine leaves- you don’t want to waste your efforts on the sub-standard. Always prefer vine leaves in jars rather than vacuum packed – and look out for the colour. Tender young leaves are very pale in colour – slightly pale pistachio, in fact. These are the ones you want – anything very dark green will be too tough.
Although fiddly, this is a ‘one-pot’ dish – the only accompaniment needed is good bread and some salty feta.
Yaprákia (or Dolmádakia)
2 x 200gm jars of vine leaves (the brand ‘Marianna’s Vine Leaves’ are the best if you can find them – see ‘Hints’ page.)
The juice of 1 lemon
100 gm butter
500 gm minced beef
200 gm ‘easy cook’ long grain rice – rinsed in a sieve.
1 smallish onion, chopped ‘Greek style’ – see ‘Hints’ Page
2 tabs chopped parsley
2 tabs chopped, mint or dill or both
Salt (about 2 teaspoons)
Ground black pepper to taste
150 ml olive oil
1 tomato, grated
3 tomatoes, sliced
And for the ‘avgolémono’ sauce – 2 eggs and the juice of 1 lemon
Carefully pull the tightly packed leaves from the jar – they will stand a fair good tugging! Discard the brine.
Place them in a large bowl and fill the bowl with cold water. Separate the leaves as much as possible. Fill the bowl with water and empty it a couple of times to get rid of as much of the brine as you can and drain.
Put the leaves on a tray or board and trickle over the lemon juice.
Now prepare the ‘stuffing’. Put the minced beef into a medium sized bowl with the chopped herbs, rice, grated tomato, salt and pepper and the ‘Greek Chopped’ onion.
To chop an onion the Greek way, you first peel the onion. Then take a slice across the top of it, exposing the rings. Now slash across the top in a criss-cross pattern. Then slice through the rings of the onion and you will find that the onion will come away in a fine dice.
Mix all these ingredients together well with your hands and then add the olive oil and mix again.
Take a good sized pan and grease the inside well with a quarter of the butter.
Now start to make the stuffed vine leaves. I am describing doing this as a right-handed person.
Take a leaf and hold it flat in the palm of your left hand. You need to have the stalk side uppermost and with the base of the leaf towards your wrist.
Now put a small teaspoonful of the mince and rice mixture at the stalk end of the leaf. Fold the sides over and then roll the whole thing up, so that you have a little bundle, with all the mixture enclosed. Just remember not to roll them too tight – you need to allow a little space for the rice to expand. (And they DO look like they’re wearing kimonos!)
Place each of the bundles in the buttered pan. Make sure that they are very close to one another, as you don’t want them to move during the cooking.
Carry on with this process, making another layer of bundles if necessary, until you have used up most of the leaves – keep a few of the mis-shaped or torn ones back, as you will need these to cover the top layer.
Cover the last layer with leaves. On top put the sliced tomatoes and dot with the remaining butter.
Now slowly add a couple of cups of water, put an inverted plate on top, pressing it down slightly.The plate need to cover most of the contents of the pan.
Add a little more water – it must not come above the plate though. Now put on the stove and cook slowly, ensuring that it does not boil dry, for about 35 – 40 minutes.
After this time, carefully remove the plate – it will be very hot! Gently uncover a part of the top layer of yaprákia, take one out and try it to see if the rice has cooked. If not, cover everything up again, add a little more water if required, and cook for a further 10 minutes or so, until cooked. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes.
Remove the plate, tomatoes and covering leaves.
Next make the egg and lemon (avgolémono) sauce. Beat the eggs together in a bowl, gradually adding the lemon juice. Next slowly add the hot juices from the pan, beating the egg and lemon mixture continuously. It is important to add as much of the hot liquid as possible – this will ensure that the mixture is at the right temperature and will stop the sauce from curdling.
Pour the egg and lemon mixture over the yaprákia and give the pan a gentle shake, so that the sauce goes all over. Allow to stand for a few minutes so that the sauce sets.
Carefully remove the yaprákia to a serving dish and serve.
Note – Yaprákia (dolmadákia) can be served at room temperature as part of a mezé. If you are doing this, do not make the egg and lemon sauce. Instead, you can serve them with a little Greek yoghourt on the side, or on their own.