Thursday, September 13, 2012

Greek Food Festival - Yaprakia/Dolmathes (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Speaking of grape leaves, check out Johanna's blog entry about picking and preparing fresh grape leaves -- right off the vine! This is a great way to avoid the salty brine of most jarred grape leaves. CLICK HERE for Johanna's post.

This classic Greek dish can be served as an appetizer or main dish. Every Greek festival or restaurant serves their version, and although the dish is similar to stuffed cabbage leaves, the taste is quite unique. They’re a perfect addition to any special occasion. Because they can be served at room temperature, you don’t have to worry about keeping them warm. Great for parties!

My family always called stuffed grape leaves “yaprakia,” but most restaurants, festivals, and cookbooks call them “dolmathes.” This was my mother’s hallmark dish! She made the best, and our family couldn’t get enough of them. My husband especially loved my mom’s grape leaves, so they became his standing birthday, Christmas, and Father’s Day present.

Jarred grape leaves can be found in most grocery stores. Look in the international section or canned vegetable aisle. One time I found the jars on the same shelves as all the pickle products. So you never know where the grape leaves might be hiding. If you still can’t find the jars, ask for help. The leaves are jarred in salty brine, so please read the instructions below for making them low sodium friendly. 

My family always served the grape leaves with either plain yogurt or avgolemeno sauce made with the yaprakia broth. Nowadays, after spending so much time rolling the stuffed grape leaves, I usually opt for plain yogurt. It’s a lot quicker. However, if you’d like to give avgolemeno a try, CLICK HERE for the recipe.

My mother always cooked her grape leaves in a pressure cooker, and I do the same. The advantage of using a pressure cooker is that the grape leaf rolls don’t get jostled around by boiling liquid. The leaves end up fully cooked, with softened veins, while the rice remains whole and doesn’t get mushy. I pressure cook the rolls for 35 minutes and let the pressure come down on its own. Of course, if you don’t own a pressure cooker, just use a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven.

Years ago my husband and I collaborated on a Greek cooking show for our local public access TV stations. One of the shows featured grape leaves and included a guest appearance by my mother. She had a special knack and was able to roll the grape leaves in the palm of her hand. If you’ like to see a great video demonstration of her making stuffed grape leaves, CLICK HERE.

YAPRAKIA/DOLMATHES (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
(Printable Recipe)

1½ pounds lean ground beef or lamb
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-cup long grain white rice
1 8-ounce can no-salt-added tomato sauce
1-tablespoon mint, dried
1-tablespoon dill weed, dried
1-tablespoon oregano, dried
½ cup chopped, fresh parsley (optional)
½ teaspoon pepper

16 ounce jar grape leaves (approximately 50 leaves)
Juice of one lemon
No-salt-added beef, chicken, or vegetable broth

Prepare the Jarred Grape Leaves:
Remove rolls of grape leaves from jar and unroll. Rinse well under cold water. Soak in water, in the refrigerator, at least 2 hours up to overnight. Change water at least twice during soaking period. Rinse and drain soaked leaves; set aside badly torn leaves for later use. Cut stems off grape leaves.

Prepare Filling:
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent; cool. Mix rice, onion and garlic mixture, tomato sauce, mint, dill weed, oregano, parsley (if using), and pepper in large bowl; mix well. Add ground beef or lamb to filling ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Roll Leaves:
Lay a leaf, vein side up, on a cutting board with stem pointing toward you. Place 2-4 tablespoons of filling (depending on size of leaf) on the part of leaf where stem begins (near center). The filling should form a narrow cylinder; do not over fill or the rolls will burst during cooking. Tuck in side edges to secure filling. Roll leaves like you’re rolling a burrito. Roll from you toward the tip of the leaf, forming a small cylinder approximately 2½ inches long and ¾ inches wide. Do not wrap too loosely or the roll will come undone during cooking.

Cooking Stuffed Grape Leaves:
Line bottom of 5 quart Dutch oven with a single layer of the reserved torn grape leaves. (If you don’t have enough torn grape leaves, use lettuce leaves. This step keeps the stuffed leaves from scorching.) Place rolls seam side down in bottom of pot, tightly together in concentric circles, layer upon layer. You want a tight fit so that rolls don't unravel when cooking. Continue until all rolls are in pot. (Any leftover filling may be made into tiny meatballs and placed on top of rolled grape leaves in pot.)

Cover rolls completely with broth and lemon juice. All the rolls MUST be submerged in liquid. Place a heavy plate that fits inside the pot over rolls as a weight to keep leaves from unrolling. For good measure, place a clean rock or stone on top of the plate to secure the rolls.

Cover pot and bring to slow simmer. Do NOT boil. Boiling will jostle the rolls and cause them to unravel.
Check rolls at 45 minutes, and add more liquid if necessary. Simmer gently about 75-90 minutes altogether or until rice is tender. Remove from heat when done. Let stand covered for 20-30 minutes before serving.

Yaprakia/Dolmathes may be served hot, warm, or cold. If desired, drizzle a bit of good quality olive oil over the rolls. If hot, serve with avgolemono sauce prepared from the yaprakia broth or with plain, unflavored yogurt. If warm or cold, serve with lemon wedges, plain, unflavored yogurt, or tzatziki sauce.

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