Stuffed grape leaves

I have a Greek first name. Because of this, occasionally someone I’ve just met will ask me if I’m Greek. It always catches me off-guard, and I never have a witty response or a graceful way out of the conversation. So I always answer truthfully, “No. My parents just liked the name.” This usually leads to a brief awkward silence, as the questioner rethinks their line of conversation. I get really nervous during awkward silences, and when I get nervous I talk. So I usually start babbling about dolmas, until the other person gets bored and walks away.

If we’re measuring solely in terms of dolma consumption, I’m probably at least 19 percent Greek. I love them truly, deeply, almost as much as I love any food. When I was a kid, and my parents would host brunches for our extended family, they would go buy big spreads of things from the deli case at the market; I always insisted that they come home with plenty of dolmas. I’ll happily eat any kind, with meat or without, but my favorites are the classic rice-filled ones, just small enough to eat in a single bite. I will uncomplainingly eat as many of these as you can put in front of me, until I’m so full I waddle.

So when my coworker–who, incidentally, is half-Greek–mentioned that she’d made dolmas at home, and they’d turned out spectacularly well, you can bet I got the recipe out of her as fast as I could. And it turns out that homemade dolmas are a whole new level of delightful. They’re intensely flavored, slicked with olive oil and lemon juice, packed plump with rice and fresh herbs and tomato. This is definitely an all-day, labor-of-love, enlist-your-friends kind of project: make a stuffing of raw rice and various flavorful things, roll it in tiny tight grape-leaf bundles, line a baking dish with more grape leaves, submerge the rolls in water with oil and lemon, bake them until they’re chubby and soft, and let them cool completely in their own cooking liquid. The leaves turn bruise-black in places, and swell satisfyingly as the rice soaks up the herby juices. The rolls are just the perfect size, easy to pop into your mouth, each one a satisfying little morsel.

These absolutely must be eaten at room temperature. We got impatient and started eating them warm, and they just didn’t taste right–the rice was too crumbly, and the herbs were too aggressive. As they cooled, the flavors swung into balance, and I found them more and more appealing. They’re also, surprisingly, one of those foods that improves with a night or two in the fridge, as the herbs and rice have even more mingling time. My friend Lucia brought some of these leftover to a music festival the next day, and said they made great picnic food: the rolls stayed firmly together, the filling shone with flavor, and they were the perfect temperature by the time she wanted to eat them. As she put it, “They really didn’t last very long.”

dolmas 4th of july

Dolma (Stuffed Grape Leaves) (makes about 30 small rolls)

Adapted from Michael Symon, via my coworker

Note: This recipe can easily be doubled, if you like. Use a 9×13 baking dish, and a 2-lb jar of grape leaves. (It may sound excessive, but it’s better to have too many grape leaves than too few.)

3/4 cup uncooked white rice (long-grain or short-grain)

1 bunch (6-8) scallions, thinly sliced

2 plum tomatoes, cored, seeded, and finely diced

6 tbsp chopped fresh dill

6 tbsp chopped fresh mint

1/2 tsp ground cumin

3/4 tsp salt, or to taste

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided

3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided (about 2 medium lemons’ worth)

1 (1 lb) jar grape leaves

Water to cover

Lemon wedges for serving

Greek yogurt for serving (optional)

In a mixing bowl, combine rice, scallions, tomatoes, mint, dill, cumin, salt, pepper, 1/4 cup olive oil, and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Mix until thoroughly combined, then cover and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

While the filling sits, drain the grape leaves and trim away any stems. Choose about 30 of the largest, most intact leaves for stuffing, and set them aside. Line a 2-quart baking dish with a double layer of remaining grape leaves, making sure the bottom is completely covered.

Lay one of the reserved grape leaves out in front of you, veined side down. Place 1 tbsp filling in the center of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling, then tuck in the sides and roll up tightly. Place the roll, seam side down, in the lined baking dish. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling, packing the rolls snugly into the dish and layering them as needed.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Lay over another double layer of leftover grape leaves, making sure that all the rolls are completely covered. Pour enough water into the baking dish to completely cover the rolls. Add remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp lemon juice to the water. Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes, or until the filling is cooked through and the rolls are tender. Check the liquid level occasionally, adding water as needed to keep the rolls mostly submerged.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and let the rolls cool completely in their liquid. Remove the extra grape leaves, and lift the rolls out of their liquid. Serve at room temperature, with lemon wedges for squeezing and Greek yogurt (if desired) for dipping. Store any leftover rolls in an airtight container, drizzled with a bit more olive oil to keep them moist; they’ll keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.

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