I went to a Greek restaurant with my mother-in-law a few weeks ago, and we had Dolmades, stuffed rice grape leaves, as an appetizer. I totally forgot about how much I love these little bundles of joy! A week later, I made them at home. It was a great rainy day project as it took about an hour and a half, but my husband and I have been eating them all week.
I love wine, so grapes and I are definitely good friends, but often the leaf of the grape is forgotten–it is a wonderful vessel for stuffing filling whether it be rice, ground beef/lamb, or an exciting combination of both!
They’re healthy, summery, and versatile. The ones I made have ground beef in them as well, but these are just as good simply with rice. You have the vegetarian/vegan flexibility with stuffed grape leaves. They’re paleo, low-carb, gluten-free, and all other hyphenated diet terms galore. These are good for you and taste good–often times, the both are not possible, but this is one fabulous exception.
Grape leaves are found abound in the Middle East/Mediterranean regions of the world. I’ve had the Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, and Palestinian versions, and they all have the slightest variant that makes the grape leave uniquely their own.
Greek Style (Dolmades, Dolmathakia): Lots of lemon, typically prepared with mint and dill
Turkish Style (Dolma, Sarma): Warmed spices (Currants, cinnamon, all spice) and a bit of sugar
Lebanese Style (Warak akish) : Usually lamb and/or ground beef, lemon juice, tomato paste/pomegranate molasses, some warm spices
Palestinian Style (Warak enab mehshi): Mainly Lebanese style with ghee (butter), sometimes parsley
**And I think Armenians do a stuffed cabbage roll similar to a grape leaf, so it’s an international delight!***
For my grape leaves, I went in the Greek direction with an Indian and Lebanese approach. I know Indians do not make grape leaves, but I decided to add Garam Masala to my sauteed onions to incorporate my version of the aforementioned “warmed spices”.
These are great to make for a party and/or picnic as a make-ahead dish. You can eat these cold, room temperature, or hot. Again, regional approaches vary here–I find that cold is popular among the Greeks and Turkish whereas the Lebanese and Palestinian people tend to serve them warm to hot. It’s totally up to you.
You can use fresh grape leaves if you can find them, but it’s just as easy to use jarred grape leaves. Fresh grape leaves must be boiled, and they must have the main stem removed–this is not edible! If your local grocery store does not carry grape leaves, I ordered mine online through Amazon.
Some people find the preservatives/brine off-putting, which makes some people not want to eat these. But if you properly rinse off each leaf before you roll it, it should take away most of the acidity. Besides, squeezing a lemon right before serving is the right tang it needs–not from sodium benzoate. The fresh lemon really brings it together, and if you make a Tahini sauce (or buy it from a reputable place, such as Trader Joe’s), you’ll get this delicious lemony and garlic combination that is perfect.
- 7-8 cups of chicken broth (you may use water, but chicken broth will impart more flavor)
- 3 lemons
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- One 16-ounce jar fresh small grape leaves in brine (about 70 leaves)
- 1 cup uncooked short-grain rice (I use Basmati–it’s the best!)
- 1-2 medium-large onions, finely diced
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pounds lean ground beef or lamb (or a mixture of both)
- 1 bunch fresh dill, chopped (you may add some mint, but I did not)
- 1 tablespoon of Garam Masala (optional, but it was my own Indian twist)
Let’s get rollin’!
- Remove grape leaves out of the jar. Place all leaves in a colander and rinse/drain very well in warm water. In addition to draining off all the liquid, I individually wash off each leaf before I roll it. If you have leaves that are damaged or ripped, set those aside for layering on the bottom of the pot.
- Sauté the onions in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent, not browned. Throw in the rice into the pan and toast the rice a bit. You are not cooking the rice–you are simply imparting flavor. The rice will cook inside the leaf, so you could also not saute the rice and simply mix it with the meat if you’re short on time, but go the extra mile. 🙂
- In a bowl, combine the onions, ground beef/lamb (if you’re using) rice, remaining olive oil, dill, juice of 1 lemon, and pepper. Mix well by hand.
- Once the filling is well incorporated, gently separate one leaf and place it shiny-side down on a work surface. Place a pinch (up to a teaspoon) of the filling on the leaf at the point where the stem joined the leaf. DO NOT OVERFILL YOUR LEAVES–THEY WILL EXPLODE!
- Roll the leaf like you would a cigar. You are folding the mixture up and then folding in the sides, tucking them in. Fold up the bottom of the leaf over the filling, then each side inward in parallel folds, and roll up the leaf. The roll should be firm, not tight, as the filling will expand during cooking. Repeat until all the filling has been used.
- Repeat this about 70 times (I am not kidding–ask for help!)
- Layer the torn/damaged leaves until all are in the pot so that the bottom is covered. Place the rolled up grape leaves all along the bottom and stack them in alternate directions for the most support.
- Once you have all your leaves in the pot, place a plate on top to keep the leaves from floating.
- Add the chicken stock to the pot to cover the leaves. Add more or less as needed.
- Bring the liquid to a gentle boil, add the remaining juice from the 1 1/2 lemons, reduce heat to low and simmer for approximately 50 to 70 minutes. Keep the lid on–otherwise, they will not properly steam.
- Check to see if done–if the rice has cooked, they are done. If not, continue cooking for another 10 minutes and check again.
- Enjoy while they are warm, leave out for room temperature, or refrigerate. My husband and I like them cold for a picnic. 🙂
- Serve with a fresh squeeze of a lemon slice, and dip into garlic tahini sauce (or hummus like sauce).
Garlic Tahini Sauce (If you want to make it versus buy it in the store)
- 1 cup tahini sesame seed paste (I prefer the paste made from light colored seeds)
- 3/4 cup lukewarm water, or more for consistency
- 3 cloves raw garlic (or 5 cloves roasted garlic for some sweetness–mmm!)
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)
- 1/4 tsp salt (or more to taste)
Combine above ingredients in blender or food processor, adding the liquid gradually to make a smooth consistency.