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.”