Stuffed grape leaves
FoodWorth the effort

Stuffed grape leaves

Perfect for warm weather; can be served cold or at room temperature

Stuffed grape leaves (Photo by Jessica Grann)
Stuffed grape leaves (Photo by Jessica Grann)

It’s really hard to get good dolmades, or grape leaves, out and about. I’ve never been impressed with the canned kosher options and we don’t have any local kosher restaurants that serve them, so I learned to make them many years ago.

I enjoy making these with meat in both the Turkish and Syrian style, but I especially love the flavor of Greek vegetarian dolmades. These are stuffed with rice and herbs and cooked in a lemony olive oil broth. They are perfect for warm weather and can be served cold or at room temperature.

If you’ve ever made stuffed cabbage then you have the skills to make stuffed grape leaves —they’re just a little smaller and take a bit of patience. I’ll share detailed instructions below to help you learn how to form these rolls.

If you have another set of hands to help, the preparation will go much more quickly. Set up an assembly line either way. It’s easier to lay out, fill and roll many at once than to fill and roll one at a time.

This recipe is definitely worth your effort.

1 32-ounce jar of grape leaves in brine
Half a large onion, finely chopped, about 1 cup
⅔ cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
½ cup fresh dill, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup toasted pine nuts, optional
2 large lemons: 1 juiced, about ¼ cup of fresh juice; 1 thinly sliced
3-4 cups cooking water
Coarse kosher salt to taste

Stuffed grape leaves, step by step (Photo by Jessica Grann)
Buy the large, 32-ounce jar of grape leaves stored in brine. I use the entire jar because it’s much easier to make and freeze half than it is to pull everything out and make another small batch. The reality is you don’t know what you’re going to get per container. The sizes of the leaves can vary and you can’t use the tiny ones. Others have tears and can’t be used. Set those aside to line the pot. I feel good if I can get about 50 pieces rolled out with one jar. Grape leaves are often packed very tightly and you need a bit of patience to get the first roll of them out of the jar. I drain the water from the jar so that I can see if there are two or three rolls of them in the jar. Gently pull one roll out with as little damage to the leaves as possible, and then take the rest from the jar.

Unfurl the grape leaves and set them in a pot or casserole dish.

Pour a kettle of boiling water over them, cover the pot and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Remove the lid and allow the water to cool until you can comfortably touch them.

Drain the water then separate the grape leaves into the ones with stems, the ones without, and a third pile for rest that are torn or too small to use. Take the pile with stems and use kitchen shears to nip out the stem and the very base of the stem as it grows into the leaf; cut a small, inverted triangle and discard the stem. Add these to the pile of regular-sized grape leaves without stems and cover with a tea towel because they tend to tear if they dry out.

Use a mesh strainer to rinse the rice. Measure one cup of long-grain rice into the strainer and rinse under cool water for about a minute before setting the rice in the strainer aside to drain. You can do this an hour before making the grape leaves so that the rice can air dry before you parboil it.

Finely chop one large onion. Sauté it in a pot with 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes or until soft and translucent.

Stir the rice into the onion and sauté for 2 minutes, then add 1 cup of water to the rice.

Once the water is bubbling, turn down the heat to low, cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the lid, stir the rice and remove the pot from the heat. This step is to parboil the rice and it’s important so as to ensure that you don’t have hard rice filling in your finished product. Partially cooking the rice also helps keep the dolmades together.

Add the dill, parsley, mint, salt and pepper to the rice and mix well.

Allow the rice to cool enough to handle before stuffing the grape leaves. If you’d like to use pine nuts, add them at this time.

Place each grape leaf shiny-side down with the veins of the leaf facing toward you.

There are two ways to stuff grape leaves. You can make them shorter and chunky, or long and thin. The long and thin version is another level of skill, so for ease I’m giving instructions for the smaller version. You will need to adjust the amount of rice filling depending on the size of the leaf. For grape leaves that are about the size of a female hand, use 2 teaspoons of filling. For larger leaves use 1 tablespoon of filling. Be careful not to overstuff the leaves or they won’t stay together.

Use a measuring spoon to scoop the desired amount of rice and place it toward the bottom of the leaf near where the stem was cut off.

Fold the bottom part up and forward about an inch, rolling it around the filling.

Fold the right, then left, sides of the leaf in toward the center, then roll up the rest of the leaf.

On average, each piece should be between 2 and 3 inches long and about 1 inch wide.

Set aside, seam down, until all the pieces are complete, then discard any unused rice mixture. You can freeze grape leaves raw to use at a later time.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper, place what you want to freeze seam down and pop the tray in the freezer. Once frozen you can put these into an airtight container and thaw them to cook as needed.

Technique is just as important as the ingredients used, and in this case it’s actually more important. Using the right pot or heat level can be the difference between a perfect dolma and a mediocre one. Use a medium-sized saucepan or small soup pan, something about 4-5 quarts in size. I use an enamel pot that is about 10 inches wide by 5 inches high. I’ve made these in sauté pans or in bigger soup pots without the best result. It’s important that the grape leaves are snug in the pan so that they don’t unravel while cooking and a smaller pot does the trick.

Line the bottom of the pot with one or two layers of the smaller and torn grape leaves. Press them up onto the side of the pot as well. If the leaves are damp they will stick. I’m never happy with the results when I skip this step, so just lay a few leaves across the bottom and up the side if possible, as this layer will protect your rolls.

Place a layer of grape leaf rolls across the bottom of the pot. Always place these seam-down. Tuck them in as tightly as possible but in a single layer. Keep in mind that these will grow larger as the rice expands so you want to have a little room for movement. I usually fit 20-30 pieces per layer.

Place a few pieces of thinly sliced lemon over the layer of dolmades and then cover this layer with a few more loose grape leaves. Alternate the direction of the rolls for the second layer. Repeat until you’ve placed all of the grape leaves into the pot. I typically get two layers in my pot.

Pour the olive oil and fresh lemon juice over the prepared grape leaves.

Lay a few more slices of lemon across the top layer and sprinkle with kosher salt, then add another layer or two of loose grape leaves over the entire top of the pot.

Take a glass or china plate that covers most of the diameter of the pot and place it upside down over the grape leaves. If the plate is slightly too large, do not force it — just choose a smaller plate like a salad-sized plate.

Gently pour water into the pot until it reaches the plate.

Put the heat to medium and bring the pot to a gentle boil before reducing the heat and putting the lid on the pot. The plate will keep the dolmades compact and submerged in the cooking liquid.

Simmer for 2 hours, checking the water level every half an hour. The rice is only parboiled and it will expand as these cook so you need to watch it so the pot doesn’t dry out. If at any point before that the bottom looks dry, add a cup of water.

At an hour-and-a-half into the cooking time you should have about 2 inches of water in the pot, which will mostly cook off by the time these are ready.

These need to be cooked low and slow so that the leaf is tender to eat. You could make the best filling in the world, but if the leaves are tough then nobody will enjoy them.

Turn the heat off and allow the pot to rest covered for half an hour.

Remove the lid and allow these to cool to room temperature.

Use tongs to lift the plate from the pot, keeping in mind that it was submerged in olive oil, so have a tray to move it onto so it doesn’t drip oil everywhere.

Allow to cool to room temperature before serving or refrigerating.

When I serve or store these, I discard the cooked lemon slices and add some fresh ones to the top of the layer.

An extra drizzle of olive oil also helps to preserve them and a batch lasts 3-4 days in the fridge. You will be so happy that you put the time and effort into making these from scratch. Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.

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