I never much cared for stuffed grape leaves (or dolmas, as they’re known in Greek) until I tasted my mother-in-law’s version. While I always found other grape leaves to be too briny or bitter or mushy or flavorless, Bella’s are taut little rolls of flavorful, textured rice filling wrapped in a leaf that’s been soaked to remove the tangy briny residue, and marinated in a heavenly lemon-juice-olive oil-garlic sauce until they soak up its Mediterranean deliciousness.
From the moment I first tasted one, I knew I had to have the recipe.
As soon as I asked for it, everyone just smiled at me pityingly.
Bella is a wonderful, self-taught, instinctive cook who has never used a recipe in her life. Even when she owned her own cafe, and made authentic grape leaves, hummus and tabbouleh all from scratch, she still never used recipes. I asked her how she managed to replicate her recipe each time, she replied that she just knows how its supposed to look.
Still undaunted, I decided to invite her over and have her give me a grapeleaf tutorial. My plan was to write down the ingredients and quantities in a veritable public service effort to liberate the glorious recipe from her head and share it with the grape-leaf deprived masses. I will preface the rest of this posting by admitting that I was only quasi-successful in my mission: I kinda-sorta pinned her down to a recipe whose quantities will fill a 9×13 baking dish stacked with 2 layers of tightly-packed stuffed leaves, about 80 total.
Please forgive the loosey-goosey nature of the pseudo-recipe below. Believe me when I say it is a veritable coup that I even managed to wrangle this out of her. To compensate for the shortcomings, I provided some photos so that you can see what things are supposed to look like at different stages, which is Bella’s preferred gauge. And of course, taste as you go and feel free to improvise.
Bella’s Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 16 oz of jarred grape leaves
For the filling:
- 3 cups uncooked white rice
- 1 cup uncooked quinoa or millet
- 1 cup pine nuts or sunflower seeds, toasted
- *approximately* 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped (or, a bunch of peppermint tea bags opened up, contents added to the rice until it looks like the photo below. Sorry… I told you this was only a pseudo-recipe.)
- Dried parsley, maybe about 2 TBSP? Can be substituted for fresh parsley or freshly chopped chives, too.
- Salt and pepper to taste. Spicy Hungarian paprika to taste, optional.
For the marinade:
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 bulb garlic, crushed
- A handful of fresh mint, chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Soak the jarred grape leaves in a big mixing bowl full of cold water to remove the brine. Dump water and repeat 2-3 times until the leaves don’t taste salty or feel slimy from the brine.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Cook the rice and quinoa separately per package instructions. (~4.5 cups water for the rice and 2 cups water for the quinoa).
- Meanwhile, while rice is cooking and leaves are soaking, toast the pine nuts or sunflower seeds in a dry saute pan or toaster oven, just until golden/fragrant.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked rice, cooked quinoa, pine nuts/sunflower seeds, mint and parsley. Season to taste, making sure the mixture is salted enough that it would taste good if you were to eat it as a side dish. It should look like this (See Step 5 below):
- Meanwhile, make the marinade. Combine lemon juice, olive oil, crushed garlic and chopped mint into a small bowl, and season with salt and pepper. The marinade will be very strong– garlicky and tangy. That’s what you want.
- Using your now-drained but still wet grape leaves, lay one grape leaf flat on your working surface. If it has tears or holes in it, place a smaller leaf on top of it to patch it up.
- Spoon a small amount of rice filling onto the base of the leaf and use your fingers to pinch the rice into a more compact row. See Step 8 below.
- Begin wrapping the grape leaf from the base, pulling the leaf base tightly over your rice mound. Fold in the sides like a burrito and finish rolling. The final product should be tight and compact. Place the stuffed grape leaf into your baking dish, and pack them in tightly together, with the end flap down, as you continue to roll more. When the bottom of the dish is full but before you start stacking the second layer, drizzle half of the marinade on top of the stuffed leaves. See Step 9 below.
- Continue rolling and stack a second layer on top until the baking dish is full. Drizzle the second half of the marinade onto the top of the second layer of grape leaves. See Step 10 below.
- Now, fill the baking dish with some water until it’s ~3/4 up the sides of the dish. (I know it sounds weird, but it will help cook the grape leaves through and will boil off in the oven.) Cover with aluminum foil and cook for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for another 30 minutes, until the water boils away. The top layer of grape leaves will be a little dried and brown, but shouldn’t be burnt. The bottom layer will be softer, but more saturated with flavor.
Bella’s grape leaves taste best on the second day once they’ve been soaking in their delicious marinade overnight and after being reheated in the oven until warmed through. (Or, microwaved in a pinch). Even better, pour some more lemon juice and olive oil on the grape leaves before re-heating.
Now, if I could just get her to give up her hummus recipe…