Every once in a while, I get the urge to make stuffed grapeleaves (dolmades), usually for a holiday or other special occasion. Part of my family is of Greek descent, so these were a mainstay of holidays and big family get-togethers throughout my childhood. Once I moved away from home, I learned to make them myself, with my mother offering plenty of help from a distance. I think it is important to carry on family traditions and keep the memories of my forebears alive, and there is no better way to do this than through food.
Making the filling is the easy part, which consists of meat (ground lamb or beef), rice, a little tomato sauce, and seasonings.
Learning to roll the grapeleaves is what takes some practice. All you really need to do is fold the grape leaf like a burrito, but it is small and unevenly shaped so it isn’t always straightforward. Luckily, when making the stuffed grapeleaves you are rolling around 50 at a time, so you get lots of practice.
The recipe I use is as follows:
~1 pound ground beef or lamb
1 small yellow or white onion, minced
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup rice (I use white basmati)
¼ cup of marinara sauce
The juice of one lemon
8-10 chopped mint leaves
1 teaspoon of oregano
salt and pepper to season
2 jars of Grape Leaves in brine
Start by pouring about a tablespoon of olive oil into a large skillet pan. Once it is warmed up, add the minced onion and garlic. Once these are translucent and aromatic, add in the meat. Once the meat is cooked through, stir in the rice, marinara sauce, lemon juice, mint leaves, oregano, salt and pepper.
Now the fun part begins.
Pull out a 9×13 pan (Pyrex or other baking pan) and a small spoon (a regular spoon will do, but make it a teaspoon). Open up your jar of grapeleaves. I usually place a layer of grapeleaves along the bottom of the baking dish but it isn’t necessary.
Then pull out a grape leaf, lay it on a flat surface, and put a spoonful of filling onto the middle part of the leaf. Then tuck in each side and roll the entire leaf up from the bottom until the entire leaf is rolled around the filling. Place into the baking dish and repeat until the all of the filling has been used. I usually get around 50 grapeleaves with this amount of filling.
Sometimes the unfilled grapeleaves are not very big or the blades are small, making them hard to use. When this happens, you can take 2 grapeleaves and place them stem to stem, so there is one big grape leaf. Then put some filling in the middle and proceed as normal.
Once all of your grapeleaves have been rolled, cover them with a layer of unstuffed grape leaves.
Fill the baking dish with water so that is covers the grapeleaves. Cover with foil and cook for about 1 hour in a 350-degree oven. You know they are done when the rice is cooked through.
I serve the stuffed grapeleaves with Tzatziki sauce. You can make you own, and there are some good store brands out there if you don’t have the time or energy. When I make my own Tzatziki, I use the recipe from Michael Psilakis’ book “How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking.”
You will also see stuffed grapeleaves served with an egg-lemon sauce or tomato sauce, but I prefer the Tzatziki sauce.
I have served stuffed grapeleaves both hot and cold, as part of a mezze or as a meal. When I serve them as a meal, they will be accompanied by rice and a greek salad. If I am looking to make it a more robust meal, I will add some grilled chicken, pork, or fish.