(Stuffed Grape Leaves)
This month in (my) history In 1972, I spent a semester studying in England, which means the continent was close at hand. So when an interterm course was offered called "A Three-Cultural View of Man," which took in the literature and philosophy of ancient Athens, Israel, and Rome, we didn't just get books, we got plane tickets.
Greece was our first stop. We spent a couple of days touring—around Athens then up to Daphne and Corinth. I love antiquity, so I was delighted by the spectacular ruins, from the Acropolis to Acrocorinth. Marble columns and Byzantine mosaics filled our days. The laurel groves at Daphne brought to mind the story of Apollo's pursuit of the nymph who escaped him by turning into a tree. We stopped to admire the Corinth canal, carved this century through the solid limestone of the Isthmus of Corinth, then continued our pursuit of the gloriously historic.
Greece was magnificent, but sad as well. Amidst the stunning antiquity and intoxicatingly beautiful countryside (rolling green hills, vividly-blue water bordered by white beaches, tidy groves and farms) there was a liberal sprinkling of poverty and decay. We would come over a rise, and as the sea came into view, often slap-dash hovels would, too. Not the sort of things the travel brochures prepare you for.
After touring, we had another couple of days, ostensibly for studying, but we spent most of our time exploring. A few friends and I prowled the streets of Athens, seeking out the flea markets and Athenian gold-workers, book stores and the Agora, wine merchants and food vendors. I had long loved Greek food, and Athens did not disappoint. Little cafés were numerous and good, but the greatest joy for me was the "street food." For a few drachmas, you could get a round of grilled pita bread and a generous stick of souvlakia on almost any street corner in the city.
The damp weather, the elation of exploring, the fragrance and warmth of the small charcoal fires all conspire to make that street food inimitable—so I won't event try to recreate it here. While these bargain meals proved to be a culinary highlight, they were by no means the only great food I had in Greece. From egg-lemon soup to spinach-cheese pie to roast lamb and rice, there were no bad meals.
Dolmades are one of the classics of Greek cuisine. It is believed that this dish dates from the time of Alexander the Great, with origins traced to Thebes. It can be made with or without meat, with meat generally used if this will be served hot, as a main course, and left out if the dish is used cold, as an appetizer. When meat is used, lamb is traditional. However, in the U.S., lamb is not the cheap meat it is in Europe, so to keep this inexpensive, if you do want to add meat, you can substitute ground turkey or lean, ground beef—just mix one cup of finely ground meat-of-choice with the other filling ingredients given below. However, they are also delicious meat free—and keep longer with no meat in the filling. Either way, these are fun to make and a delight to eat.
(Stuffed Grape Leaves)
28-oz. jar of grape leaves
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 cup uncooked, long-grain rice
⅓ cup olive oil
⅓ cup chopped parsley
1 Tbs. dried dillweed
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. lemon juice
⅓ cup pine nuts
⅓ cup currants
3 cups chicken broth
3 Tbs. lemon juice
1 cup plain yogurt
2 tsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. dillweed
dash salt, or to taste
Rinse the grape leaves in warm water (to remove excess salt and to help separate leaves). Cut the stems off the leaves, then separate them into two piles: large and whole, and smaller or torn. Place a single layer of the smaller or torn, unrolled leaves in the bottom of a flat-bottomed pot of at least 2 quarts capacity.
Combine all the filling ingredients and mix thoroughly. Place one of the larger leaves on a flat surface in front of you, bottom side up, stem side toward you. Put a rounded teaspoon of filling in the center of the leaf. Fold the stem end over the filling, then fold the sides over the center, and finally roll the parcel away from you toward the tip of the leaf. You should end up with a little packet about 2-½ inches long by ¾ inches wide. Do not wrap the bundles too tightly, because the rice needs room to expand.
As you place the rolled grape leaves in the pot, nestle them rather snugly together, so they won't unroll while cooking. Once the first layer is complete, cover it with a layer of the smaller, unrolled leaves. Create your second layer of bundles, then cover that with unrolled leaves. If necessary, repeat.
Place a single plate on top of the rolled grape leaves as a weight, to keep bundles from unrolling (don't worry, this doesn't get hot enough to break a china plate—though I wouldn't recommend using an heirloom piece). Mix the chicken broth and lemon juice and pour over the leaves in the pot. Cover and bring to a light simmer. Cook 1 hour, then remove pot from the heat and allow to cool for an hour. Don't take off the lid, because the leaves will darken. Serve warm or refrigerate and serve cold, with yogurt sauce for dipping. (For sauce, just whisk the four ingredients together.) Nice without the sauce, too.
Makes about 40-50 little bundles, depending on how much filling you put in each parcel (serves 6-8 people as an appetizer).