Grapes are slowly ripening in our garden. It’s a process I follow with happy anticipation every year, but at the moment the abundantly growing tendrils and leaves around the fruits are of even more interest to me: it’s the perfect time to make dolmadakia! Dolmades, or the Greek diminutive dolmadakia, are the stuffed vine leaves that star in mediterranean mezze platters and with their distinct, tangy flavour they’re one of my favourite snacks.
As a gardenless student, I used to make dolmadakia using jarred vine leaves and I assumed that the Greek little parcels owed their characteristic flavour mainly to the brine in the jar. So wrong! This week I discovered that as soon as you put the fresh leaves in boiling water, they start spreading that herby and acidic fragrance which makes the whole thing so yummy. So if you have access to fresh leaves, I’d highly recommend making the most of the season and using them to make these little treats.
I was first introduced to dolmadakia and other Greek delights by my two dear Greek friends Maria and Katerina. After sharing a students’ house in Utrecht, we went our separate ways, but continued to share in each other’s important, life-changing experiences and I feel blessed to call them my friends.
When it comes to cooking, Katerina insists I don’t mess about too much with the cuisine of her home country. When I posted the recipe for my quick & easy cucumber sauce and loosely stated that the addition of mint would make it tzatziki-like, she sternly commented that if it didn’t contain garlic, I couldn’t call it tzatziki.
So when making these dolmadakia, I didn’t mess about too much. I used the leaves from the garden, stuffed them and slowly simmered them in water and lemon juice for that lovely tangy flavour. I stuffed them with the filling I like best: short-grain rice, pine nuts and lots and lots of fresh herbs. I’m not sure how Katerina feels about my addition of tarragon to the filling – I just love this herb and would add it to almost everything if I could, but apart from that, it adds a friendly, slightly sweet accent to these acidic, savoury parcels and gives them a wonderful depth of flavour. So she might just love it as I do – it’s a good opportunity to call her and ask.
Rice and herb stuffed dolmadakia – makes about 40 rolls
- 50 vine leaves (preferably fresh, but jarred ones work fine as well)
- 200 ml olive oil
- 2 white onions, chopped
- 400 g short-grained rice
- 4 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
- 60 g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 30 g fresh mint, chopped
- 40 g fresh dill, chopped
- 15 g fresh tarragon, chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 5 tbsp. lemon juice
- extra lemon wedges, for serving
Bring a large pan of water to a boil and fill a bowl with iced water. Rinse the fresh leaves. Leave the stems on, for easy removal from the iced water later. In small batches, tip the leaves into the boiling water and blanch them for 1-2 minutes until just tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the leaves to the iced water. Allow them to cool, then take out of the water and spread them onto a clean tea towel until further using.
If using jarred leaves instead, unroll the package of leaves and tip it into the boiling water as is. Turn off the heat and leave it to stand for a few minutes, then transfer the package to the iced water to cool down. This process will remove any bitterness in the leaves. Now carefully separate the leaves and leave them on the tea towel while you prepare the stuffing.
Heat a third of the olive oil and fry the onion until translucent. Add the rice and fry it along for a few minutes, then turn off the heat. Mix the rice with the pine nuts and chopped herbs and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Leave to cool.
Cut the stems off the leaves. Place a leaf in front of you, shiny side down and the stem end facing you. Depending on the size of the leaf, put 1-2 spoonfuls of the filling on the leaf, just above the stem end.
Carefully fold the down sides of the leaf over the filling. Fold the left and right side towards the center, then loosely roll the leaf into a cigar-shaped parcel. Repeat with the rest of the leaves.
Cover the base of a cast-iron pot or a Dutch oven with left-over or torn leaves. This will prevent the parcels from scorching during the cooking process. Arrange the parcels over the base of the pot, seam side down and closely next to each other so they won’t open when boiling. You may need to make two layers. Fill up any gaps between or around the parcels with extra leaves if you have them.
Place the pot on the stove and add 600 ml of boiling water, the remaining olive oil and the lemon juice. Cover the parcels with a plate and weigh it down with something heavy, then put the lid on the pot. Bring to a simmer over a medium heat, then turn the heat to low. Leave the parcels to simmer for 35-40 minutes, until the water has been absorbed. Check if the rice is done; if not, simmer for 10 minutes more. If the pan goes dry too quickly, add some more boiling water.
Leave the dolmadakia to cool and enjoy at room temperature or chilled, with extra lemon wedges for squeezing.