Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Without a doubt, the grape vine is one of mankinds most important plants and is grown on every habitable continent around the world. It's one of our little quirks that the reason we grow grapes so widely is that they provide us so much pleaure in the form of wine as well as being an important fruit.
But that's not the whole story either. From the Levant countries of the Mediterranean to as far west as Greece, grape vines have been providing a leaf wrapping for savoury rice fillings, either completely vegetarian or with a little meat, for millenia.
Known as dolmades in Greece and simply as vine leaves elsewhere, it's probably no accident that leaves of the grape vine are used in this manner in a region not noted for the quality of its wines; quality sometimes so poor that the Greeks came to add pine resin to certain wines (retsina) and thought it an improvement!
There is no doubt though, that vine leaves are extremely tasty and not a little addictive. The version I like best are those made with brined vine leaves and containing a little meat - fresh, unsalted leaves seem better suited to subtle vegetarian fillings.
Brining the leaves seems to turbocharge their flavour, adding a salty, slightly sour note and seems to be the preferred version in many countries, perhaps because the leaves can also be stored, unrefrigerated, for extended periods.
By all means, use fresh leaves when you can get them, but make sure they come from unsprayed plants. It is also a cooking job best suited to at least two people, one to unfold the leaves as the other stuffs and rolls them.
(adapted from A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden)
500g preserved (salted) vine leaves
250g long grain rice
500g lamb or beef, minced
2 tomatoes, skinned and finely diced
1 large onion, finely diced
small bunch parsley, washed and finely chopped
handful of finely chopped celery leaves
salt and fresh ground pepper
4 tablespoons tomato concentrate
4 cloves garlic, slivered
juice of 2 lemons
Place the preserved vine leaves in a large bowl and cover with boiling water for at least 30 minutes, teasing the leaves apart as best you can. Drain and soak in cold water for another 30 minutes, again teasing the leaves apart, then drain.
Rinse the rice and add it to a large bowl with the meat, tomato, onion, parsley, celery leaves, tomato concentrate, season with salt and pepper and mix well
Take a vine leaf and place it on a work surface, veined side uppermost and place a teaspoon of filling at the base and start to roll. As you do, fold over the side leaves and continue to roll until you have a neat cylinder. Even if it isn't neat, declare it so and move onto the next one, you'll soon get the hang of it.
Preserved vine leaves are a little delicate and you will rip the occasional leaf; this is a good thing as torn leaves are used to line the bottom of the cooking pot. When you have used up all the mixture, line the bottom of a pot large enough to take all the rolled vine leaves with any torn and leftover leaves. If there is any mixture left, use it to stuff another vegetable like a capsicum.
Arrange the vine leaves in the pot, seam side down and as close together as possible, along with any extra vegeables you may have stuffed, placing slivers of garlic amongst them. When they are all in the pot, add the lemon juice and enough water to come to the bottom of the top layer. Find a plate that will fit snugly in the pot, this will help to keep the leaves from unravelling. Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer and cook for about 2 hours or until tender. Serve them hot and if you like, with some Greek yoghurt flavoured with chopped mint.