Whenever I see Ann Davidson, who runs the free magazine My Village News, we discuss gardens and she nearly always brings me cuttings and little plants grown from seed, of which a yellow dahlia is a particular favourite. I haven’t seen her for a couple of months, but she remembered that I had said I would like to grow vines in the future, partly for the grapes but also for the vine leaves, which can be stuffed. Yesterday I heard the doorbell go when I was in the shower, and by the time I emerged, no-one was there of course, but there was a bag in my parcel box with lots of vine leaves and several bunches of tiny red grapes. The excitement!
Ann grows the vines herself in Bulkeley (probably best known as the home of The Bickerton Poacher, but perhaps that’s just me). The vine is a variety called Black Hamburg (Vitis vinifera Schiava Grossa) that Ann found at Wroxeter Roman Vineyard (which lies partly over the Roman site of Viroconium Cornoviorum). Wasting no time, I tried some of the grapes, which are tiny little explosions of massive flavour, utterly delectable, and I started looking at recipes for stuffed vine leaves (Greek dolmades).
I have had a love of Greek cooking for decades, due to the emphasis on quality ingredients and simple but big and well-matched flavours that taste, above all, fresh. Dolmades were a feature of rural cooking, usually vegetarian, quick, easy and inexpensive to prepare, but full of taste. In the vegetarian version the flavour comes from the onion, garlic, fresh herbs (including a selection from dill, mint, parsley, thyme, coriander, bay and oregano) and the stock in which the rice is cooked (which can be herb or vegetable stock). In a meat-based version, the flavour comes mainly from the meat and a less lavish combination of herbs, but may have more spices (such as cumin, paprika, fennel seed, nutmeg and cinnamon) and a vegetable-, herb- or meat-based stock. The meat used is usually minced lamb or goat. Coastal Greece and its islands have a shrubby, Mediterranean landscape that favours livestock that will browse on low quality vegetation.
Vine leaves are available in tins or vacuum-packed online and in some supermarkets, although I’ve never tried them. Those need no preparation. Ann’s, being fresh, needed to be softened a little, and the conventional wisdom of various recipes suggested that placing them in just-boiled water, taken off the heat, to poach for 5 minutes should do the trick, and it worked perfectly. The green of the leaf becomes a little yellower in the hot water, in spite of lemon juice being added, but this is normal.
I didn’t have any lamb or goat mince, and at this time of year there are not enough herbs in the garden for a fully flavoured vegetarian version, but I did have some beef mince, so went with that. I kept the spices and herbs simple: ground cumin, dried oregano, plus fresh marjoram and a bay leaf from the garden and a heaped teaspoon of sun-dried tomato paste.
Onion and garlic are fried with raw long-grained rice, and when the rice begins to go golden, the mince is added. Once the mince is browned, enough water is added to reach just below the top of the mince mix, and this is simmered off, so that a stodgy mix is left, and the rice has taken in some of the water to plump up a little. At this stage I stirred in some chilli flakes, some cassia bark (a bit like cinnamon) and some paprika, just to give it a bit more pizazz.
You will need an oven-proof dish with a lid. Place unused vine leaves on the base (the tatty ones or the ones that are too deeply lobed to hold the stuffing), and place tomato slices over the top. The vine leaves and tomato slices act as a lining and trivet to prevent the dolmades from burning and impart flavour into the water or stock that you pour over before putting it into the oven. I also added lemon slices to mine.
The rice mix is then added to the surface of the softened leaves. The leaf is laid out with the untidy side facing upwards so that when stuffed it is the smooth side that shows. Leave enough room for rice to continue expanding as it cooks. The vine leaf is like a sycamore leaf, an upside-down heart. I did mine by bringing together the two lobes of the heart across the mix, bringing in the two sides to cover it, and then pulling the pointed end over the top. Place seam-side down on the tomato layer, and when all the dolmades are in, preferably tightly fitting. I had a vine leaf left over, so aid it over the top, just for decorative effect.
Next add a good glug of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, then place an oven-proof plate or equivalent on top to prevent them unravelling when you add the water. I used an all-metal pan lid. Then pour over hot water or stock. This should reach the top of the dolmades.
Some people do theirs on the hob, some in the oven. I did mine in a pre-heated oven at 190ºC (conventional oven). Recipes vary on how you should proceed from here but I simply let mine cook for 40 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to make sure that the dolmades didn’t dry out. There was still some liquid left at the end of the process, which will make an excellent stock, having incorporated not only the dolmades stuffing flavours, but the tomato and lemon from the base too.
Vegetarian dolmades are usually served slightly warm, at room temperature, or cold whereas meat ones are often served hot, but may also be warm or cold. I had mine straight out of the oven, but I cooked double what I needed to ensure that I would have half left over to try cold, and will be trying it tomorrow. The photo at the bottom of the page shows a tidy display, but that was before I drizzled the stock over the top of the dolmades, just to add some more flavour and interest. The tzatziki, recommended by every recipe I read, worked superbly.
Traditionally dolmades are served with lemon slices and tzatziki (mint in yogurt), and I served mine with both, as well as olives and a mixed herb salad with feta. It was not, however, a Greek salad, but a very English garden salad with mint, buckler-leaf sorrel, little gem, sweet cicely, marjoram and a lot of lovage, with some cucumber. I drizzled the whole lot with chilli oil and lemon juice, with lots of black pepper.
It was all a bit cobbled together but it was nevertheless a resounding success. I would like to do it with lamb and a different combination of accompanying herbs, and I must have a go at a vegetarian version, but the beef version was really excellent and will remain in my repertoire. Of course, I have now added a Black Hamburg vine to my must-have plant list! A visit to the Wroxeter Roman Vineyard might not be a bad idea either 🙂
Thank you Ann!