Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Preparing for a Greek feast

Grape leaves in brine.

A scheduled execution gave me my foraging target this week.

I found out last week that a neighbor's house would have to be fumigated for beetles, and a thriving grapevine along the back stairs would likely not survive.  My friend Rebecca and I asked to harvest the leaves, and they had no objections to us picking as many as we wanted - more than 100 in the end.

Why would anyone pick that many grape leaves? To roll up a big batch of dolmades, of course. Dolmades are Greek grape leaf wraps, usually filled with rice and/or beef, and drizzled with Avogolemeno (egg and lemon) sauce. 

My appetite for dolmades had been whetted by the recent Greek festival in the Oakland hills. I'd never been to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and was surprised at how the bright afternoon light reflecting off white walls and domes combined with the open airiness of the patios gave a convincing Mediterranean feel. 

I have many childhood memories of Greek dishes eaten in midwestern church basements (my favorite is Galaktoboureko, a custard-based dessert wrapped with phyllo dough and drizzled with honey) so we were mostly going there to eat ourselves silly. The beautiful setting was just an unexpected bonus. We hit the food stalls, then waited in line to have our plates filled by little old Greek ladies who had been cooking for days. The meal was topped off by my favorite dessert, of course. I joyously ate myself into a food coma.

Usually to make dolmades, you buy a pack of imported pickled grape leaves, but this was an excellent opportunity to do it ourselves. Rebecca and I tried to pick leaves larger than my palm with fingers spread. With the leaves, bigger is better because rolling tiny dolmas is just annoying. It's too much work for a single mouthful.

We removed the stems, washed the leaves and then rolled them in stacks of eight, the width of a thick cigar. Four rolls fit into each mason jar. 

To prepare the brine, I filled a big pot about a quarter full of water, then added kosher salt.  To test the correct salt level, I tried to float an egg in the pot. It sank. I kept adding more salt until the egg achieved reasonable buoyancy, but at that point got distracted by something else, and when I checked the pot again I sheepishly realized that I had just boiled an egg. 

When the leaves were tightly packed into the mason jars, we poured the brine to about an inch below the rims, and then added several tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to each jar. 

We plan to hold a Greek-themed dolma-rolling party to use the grape leaves in the next few weeks, and I think I may even try my hand at making my first Galaktoboureko for the occasion! 
Here's the recipe I will use to make the Dolmades with Avogolemeno (egg and lemon) sauce. Traditional dolmades are stuffed with rice and ground beef, but I like the addition of the tomato in this vegetarian version.

Vegetarian Dolmades
Adapted from Wandering Chopsticks
  • 40 grape leaves
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • About 1 or 2 tbsp mint leaves, finely minced
  • About 1 or 2 tbsp dill, minced
  • 1 small onion, diced and sauteed until softened
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Avogolemeno (Greek Egg and Lemon) Sauce

  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 to 1 cup water

Cook 1 cup rice. Add 1 diced tomato, about 1 or 2 tbsp finely minced mint leaves, 1 small diced and sauteed onion, 1/2 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp ground black pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Add 1-2 tbsp of the filling to the center of each grape leaf, fold up the bottom of the leaf, fold in the sides and then roll to close. Steam the dolmades 10-15 minutes.

For the Avogolemeno: In a pan on medium-low heat, warm up 1/2 cup water. Beat 1 egg, 1 tbsp flour and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add the mixture to the warm water and stir. Taste and add more water if the mixture is too tart. The sauce should thicken in about five minutes or so, and be sure to stir every once in a while to make sure it doesn't clump.

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