In Greece, if it’s Easter, or Christmas, or your birthday, it’s a good excuse for eating stuffed grape leaves (dolmathes). These delicious nuggets are one of the foods most closely associated with traditional Greek cuisine, enjoyed both as an appetizer and as a main course.
Making dolmathes at home is a great opportunity to try out delicious fillings. The best-known recipes for dolmathes are yialantzi, either with a filling of rice and herbs, or a combination of ground meat (lamb, or lamb and beef or veal), rice, and herbs. Rice-filled leaves are often served at room temperature with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt, which makes them great for summer entertaining. (One recipe yields more than fifty dolmathes, so they’re perfect to make when a crowd is coming.) The herbs in the filling can vary (fresh mint, dill, and parsley are among the favorites); some cooks add raisins or pine nuts. The stuffed leaves are simmered in a bath of lemon juice, olive oil, and water, both to add flavor and to fully cook the stuffing and tenderize the leaves.
Variations of dolmathes are all over Greece. Some of the most intriguing fillings come from the Aegean Islands. In Kalymnos, I’ve had dolmathes filled with rice and pumpkin or eggplant. In Rhodes, bulgur wheat and cumin replace the rice. In the north of Greece, the filling might be broad beans or lentils and rice.
When I make dolmathes, I spread out as many leaves as can fit on my countertop and start portioning out the filling. Depending on the size of the leaves, the amount of filling can vary from a heaping teaspoon to a tablespoon; they should be plump but not overstuffed. As I roll up the leaves, I tuck them, seam side down, into the cooking pot snugly, since they’ll darken if exposed to air while cooking.
Most of the key ingredients for dolmathes are in your grocery store
In Greece, many cooks pick and preserve their own grape leaves (the season is April and May) to use not only for stuffing but also for wrapping—especially for grilled foods, like fish. The most tender leaves, usually table grape varieties, are the most popular. Leaves from the sultana grape are considered the best. Most people blanch and freeze the leaves in small packets to ensure a ready supply all winter long. Others prefer to pickle the leaves in brine. On some Aegean islands, cooks string up the leaves like garlands and sundry them. They then rehydrate them before stuffing and rolling them. In the United States, fresh grape leaves (mainly from California) are available in some Greek and Middle Eastern markets. Usually, though, you find the leaves brined in jars (available in most grocery stores); a typical jar holds 50-to 60-leaves, although usually some of the leaves are torn.
Greek olive oil
Olive oil is as much a part of Greek culture as it is a part of-the cuisine. It’s used symbolically in the baptismal and wedding rituals of the Greek Orthodox Church; as a lighting fuel, especially for votive candles; and as a moisturizer —I use it on my face. In the kitchen, we use it for frying, sautéing, roasting, braising, stewing, and as a condiment. It’s often the preferred fat in pastry and other sweets. About 90 percent of the olive oil produced in Greece is extra-virgin, made from several varieties of oil olives, mainly the tiny, prized Koroneiki. The best oils come from Crete and the Peloponnesus. Some of my favorites are widely available in the U.S. The extra-virgin olive oils Gaea Kalamata, Morea, and Kalamata Gold are available from Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Thick, drained Greek yogurt is a perfect match for almost any dolma. It has the tartness of sour cream, which counters the sweetness of the profuse amount of onions in most dolmathes recipes. It also has a much richer, thicker texture than American yogurt, as more of the whey has been drained. One commercial brand of Greek yogurt, Total (also called Fage), is available widely across the U.S.; try natural-foods stores or Whole Foods markets. You could substitute sheep’s milk or goat’s milk yogurt (sold in some groceries and many natural-foods stores) or drain plain full-fat yogurt to thicken it. Start with twice the amount of plain, full-fat yogurt you’ll need, and drain it in a colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth for two to three hours, or until it has reached the consistency of sour cream.