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.”

But 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. I’ll happily eat any kind, with meat or without, but my favorites are the classic rice-and-herb filled ones, just small enough to eat in a single bite. 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.

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 a labor-of-love, enlist-your-friends kind of project: rolling tiny dollops of filling into grape leaves is the kind of repetitive task that’s best done in a team. Then, once rolled, the dolmas are baked in a dish lined with even more grape leaves, bathed in lemony oily water that turns into a featherweight brine. The leaves turn bruise-black in places, and swell satisfyingly as the rice soaks up the herby juices.

These absolutely must be eaten at room temperature. Whenever I get impatient and start eating them warm, they fall apart. As they cool, the flavors swing into balance, and the rice firms up enough to hold its shape. 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.

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, and it’s a great make-ahead dish for parties! Use a 9×13 baking dish, and a large jar of grape leaves (2 lb net weight or 1 lb drained weight).

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

1 bunch (6-8) scallions, thinly sliced

2 plum tomatoes, 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 olive oil, divided

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice, divided (about 2 lemons’ worth)

1 small jar grape leaves (16 oz net weight, or 8 oz drained weight)

Water to cover

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 to combine, then cover and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

While the filling sits, drain the grape leaves, then unroll the bundles and carefully separate the leaves. If any of the leaves still have the stems attached, trim them off. Reserve about 30 of the largest, most intact leaves for stuffing; the rest (including any broken leaves) will be used to line the baking dish.

Preheat the oven to 350º F, and line a 2-quart baking dish with grape leaves, overlapping as needed to completely cover the bottom. Lay one of the reserved grape leaves out in front of you, smooth side down/veiny side up. Place a couple teaspoons of filling in the center of the leaf (the exact amount will depend on the size of the leaf). Fold the stem end over the filling, then tuck in the sides and roll up. Place the roll, seam side down, in the lined baking dish. Repeat until you’ve used up all the filling, packing the rolls snugly into the dish and layering them as needed.

Drizzle over the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp lemon juice. Lay any remaining grape leaves over the top to cover the rolls (this will keep them moist while baking). Add water until it just covers the top layer of grape leaves. Bake until the rice is cooked through and the rolls are tender and plump, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. 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 Greek yogurt (if desired) for dipping.

Make ahead/leftovers: Store dolmas in an airtight container in the fridge, submerged in their cooking liquid. They’ll keep for up to 3 days.

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