Shadow cats – just because they’re cute.
Dolmades – just because the produce stand had pretty grape leaves.
Most regions that grow grapes will have a traditional recipe for making stuffed grapes leaves, just as many cultures make stuffed cabbage leaves. Stuffing things into other things and eating them seems to be a human trait… anyway… Locally, we find the grape leaves stuffed with a more rice-heavy filler recipe with an egg/oil/lemon sauce that can be eaten hot or cold. They’re usually listed on menus as ‘Wareq ‘ayneb’, which is, literally, just the grape leaves. Add the word ‘Mahshi’ and that tells you they’re stuffed, but I rarely see it written that way. Brad and I like this dish, but the kids won’t touch it… probably due to the tang of the lemon sauce.
But the produce stand had such pretty leaves… what to do? I was sure Brad and I would enjoy them for dinner, but I don’t believe in making separate adult and kids meals! Then I remembered the dolmades we had on Crete. Those rolls had more meat, and were covered in a tomato sauce. I decided to experiment with that idea and made something that brought about two miracles. One was, my kids willingly and without much complaint, ate odd looking dark green lumps covered in baked on tomato sauce… even after they saw that there was not only onion mixed with the meat, but zucchini too! They said it was ‘not their favorite, but it’s wasn’t bad at all’ … which was a much better response than I thought I’d get from them!! The second miracle was that I made up a tasty recipe that was relatively fast, easy, and did NOT result in the production of +/-500 dolmades. I love the things, really, but how many do you honestly need in a single meal?? Like this recipe (<-link), it looks yummy, but you start with 2lbs of meat plus all the other ingredients! Sure, I know you can scale recipes, but sometimes it messes up the cooking time, esp, with raw rice. Here’s what I did:
Prep the leaves: Wash the leaves. Remove the hard stems. Bring to a boil in lightly salted water. I also added a bit of olive oil… I wasn’t sure if they’d stick together and tear. When the leaves turn from their natural green, to a grey-green-brown, they’re done. It doesn’t take long. Drain the water and cool. I had about 30 leaves. The younger leaves without thick veins are best. You might want to save some of your torn or less pretty leaves to line your casserole dish, but I didn’t have any ugly leaves. I very lightly oiled my glass casserole dish with olive oil and nothing stuck.
Filling: I browned one-half kilo of ground beef with finely diced onion and garlic. I chopped up one tomato, and one finely diced zucchini. I also added salt, pepper, and 3-4 tbsp mint. I’ve had pine nuts in dolmades, more tomatoes, rice (cooked and uncooked – depending on how your recipe works. For my experiment, leftover cooked white rice would have been good.), etc. I’ve also added wine to the sauce, or not. It’s a pretty forgiving dish so I’d suggest browsing the internet for more filling ideas. I sauteed the whole until the veggies were medium soft.
In the meantime, I made a batch of this simple dough (<-link) and set it aside… I didn’t plan on needing it to rise much… which is good because I don’t have much luck with bread here.
Rolling the dolmades: I’m no pro at this, but basically, put the leaf face down, veins up, with the tip of the leaf away from you. Place a small spoon of filling at the base where the stem would attach. Fold over the bottom flaps, then roll up, folding in the sides like a closed burrito, until you get to the tip. (look online, you can likely find photo instructions or a video). Place in rows in your casserole dish… on a bit of oil or your leftover leaves… with the seam down. Pack them in fairly snug. For the small amount of rolls that I made, I used my smallest rectangle pyrex… about 11x8” and made a single layer of rolls. For larger batches, rolls are often stacked in multiple layers, but you’d have to watch your cook time. Some recipes call for stove top cooking, and placing a heavy plate on top to keep the rolls from unraveling. I bet it would also work nice in a crockpot.
Tomato sauce – I suppose you could search for recipes, use one of your own recipes, use plain tomato sauce, or, do as I did… look in your pantry and see what’s there. I keep a few boxes of tomato sauce for quick meals, and I also had a box of Pomi Marinara Sauce. That sounded good to me! I just poured it over the layer of rolls. I did not cover it. Perhaps if I’d made a larger batch that required longer cooking, covering the dish might be a good idea, at least for part of the time, to keep it from drying out the sauce.
I preheated the oven to 350F, and noticed I was running out of time! I usually try to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour, but the gas tank ran out – resulting in some running around and phone calls, Honor had computer homework she needed help with, and Brian needed assistance with organizing an oral book report he was to give first thing this morning. Somewhere in the midst of all that, we had to run over to the embassy and pick up Brad. I had the leftover meat filling and bread dough and I had planned on making little 2-3” meat pockets… which the kids love, and I figured it would make up for my putting stuffed grape leaves on their plates as an entree… but I didn’t have time. I simple rolled the whole dough out, long and flat, put the meat in it, and rolled it up in a big long loaf. I placed it on a lightly oiled baking sheet.
I put the casserole dish and the meat bread in the oven at the same time and baked for about 30minutes at 350F. Tadaa! Dinner! I had leftover rice, veggies, and lebnah (strained yogurt) to serve with. There was a little grumbling when the kids sat down to eat… as I said, they know that they do not like the local wareq ‘ayneb, and it’s not just whining, they’ve tried them… and they were expecting the lemon sauce. I told them it was different, these had more meat, etc. and they agreed to try them. They were also happy because I told them that, if they really didn’t like it, they could unwrap the rolls and just eat the filling. I think the meat bread on the side, and homemade ice cream with fresh strawberries dessert, helped too.