Last year for New Year's Eve, Annie and I along with our friend Jodie did a sort of Spanish Tapas style spread of food for a little party Jodie and her husband Mike hosted at their lovely home down in Culver City. This year, the plan was to do the same, but on a slightly more intimate scale. More leisurely, fewer guests, more relaxed. Initially we were going to go Indian, but the more I thought about it, as much as I love Indian, I find it a bit heavy and usually after I've had a plate of curry, rice and some warm naan slathered with chutney, I feel a bit bloaty and want to take a nap. Not exactly the mood one wants to be in on New Year's Rockin' Eve. It was around this time that I watching The Martha Stewart Show (which has gotten much better than when it first came on the air, by the way), and one of Martha's guests was chef Jim Botsakos, who apparently runs a Greek restaurant in New York City called Molyvos, and has written a cookbook called The New Greek Cuisine.
The thing about Martha is, if she doesn't like something you know it. Although she assures the audience that the dish is "delectable", her eyes are dull, her smile is tight and she sort of just stands there stiffly holding her plate and fork, not eating. However, if she loves something, which is somewhat rare, she continually interrupts the guest with affirmations of delicious satisfaction and greedily tastes all the ingredients with her fingers. That was the case with these interesting stuffed grape leaves. Her reaction was so effusive that I became intrigued. I pitched the idea of light, fresh, lemony Greek food, rather than leaden, sleep inducing Indian, to Annie and Jodie and fortunately they saw it my way.
(For the Vegetable Dolmades)
1/4 cup dried currants
1/4 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 1/4 cups finely chopped white onion
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 1/2 cups finely chopped yellow bell pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups short-grain white rice such as Arborio
5 cups homemade or low-sodium, canned store-bought vegetable stock
1 1/4 cups finely chopped, seeded plum tomatoes
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
5 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
32 brine-packed California grape leaves, stems removed, plus about another 14 to line baking dish, rinsed and well drained
(For the Yogurt-Garlic Sauce)
1/2 large English cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the yogurt-garlic sauce, line a colander or strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth. Place it over a bowl deep enough to hold the draining liquid without the liquid touching the bottom of the colander.
Place the cucumber in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the garlic, and process just until finely chopped. Transfer mixture to the colander and set aside to drain for about 30 minutes, or until all the juice has drained off.
Pull the cheesecloth up and tightly twist the ends together to force out any remaining juices into the bowl. Discard the cheesecloth and cucumber, remove the colander, and reserve the juice in the bowl.
Meanwhile, place the yogurt in a medium nonreactive bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice and the the reserved cucumber-garlic juice, 1/4 cup at a time. The sauce should be the consistency of a creamy vinaigrette. You'll probably not need all of the juice. I used just under 1/2 cup of it. When blended, season with salt and pepper.
Serve immediately or place in a nonreactive container, cover, and refrigerate up to 3 days.
Next, the dolmades. Place currants in a small heatproof bowl and add enough water to cover. Set aside to plump for about 15 minutes.
Place a medium skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil, onion, and a pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 2 minutes. Do not let garlic and onion brown. Stir in pine nuts and almonds and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Add bell pepper and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Stir in cinnamon; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Add rice and stir until the rice is well coated with oil, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed the stock, about 7 minutes. Stir in another 2 cups of stock until well blended, then fold in tomatoes.
When the stock has reduced by two thirds and the rice is still very firm (not quite al dente), drain the currants and fold them into the rice. Remove skillet from the heat and fold in mint, parsley, and 2 tablespoons of remaining olive oil, stirring to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 350°. Fill a large bowl with ice and water. Set aside.
Fill a large pot with cold water. Add a tablespoon of salt along with 3 tablespoons lemon juice and place over high heat. Bring to a boil and then add grape leaves, 3 or 4 at a time, cook for 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer grape leaves to the ice-water bath to stop the cooking. Then transfer to a double layer of paper towel to drain. Pat dry. Repeat process until all grape leaves have been cooked.
Line the bottom of a large baking dish with a single layer of grape leaves (about 7). Set aside.
Working with one grape leaf at a time, place the leaf rib side up on a flat surface. Neatly remove the stem if necessary. Place 1 tablespoon of the cooled rice mixture near the bottom (the widest part of the leaf).
Fold the bottom up over the rice filling and then fold each side in and over to cover. Begin rolling the leaf over the filling to make a tight, neat roll. Place the finished roll into the grape-leaf lined dish, seam side down. Continue making dolmades, packing them tightly into the baking dish so that the rolls will stay together. I was able to fit 41 of them in my baking dish. I had about a cup of left over rice and could have made more, but decided not to. I think I probably could have gotten about 16 more, although they would not have fit in the pan and I think you are really supposed to bake them in a single layer.
Combine remaining 2 cups stock, with remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and pour the hot stock over the dolmades in the baking dish.
Cover the dolmades with a single layer of grape leaves (another 7). Then place another smaller baking dish inside the pan to hold the dolmades firmly in place. I would place the baking dish on a cookie sheet with sides, as the stock sort of boils over whilst in the oven. Place the baking dish in the oven and bake until leaves are tender and filling is cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven immediately drain off all liquid and discard.
When cool, remove the top layer of grape leaves and place the dolmades on a serving platter if serving immediately. Alternatively, place in a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature with yogurt-garlic sauce, a drizzling of a nice olive oil, and maybe scattered with some chopped mint (which I did not do, but I think it would be nice).
Although the dolmades are time consuming, all the steps are quite easy and it can all be done ahead of time, which is really nice, especially for a party. I was concerned that the grape leaves with be far too delicate to work with and this whole experiment would end in frustration, however, even after poaching them for a few seconds in the boiling water the leaves were still very workable. In fact, Pierson and Mike pointed out that the poaching seemed to take away some of the briny flavor that a lot of stuffed grape leaves can have. The texture of the filling is really nice too. I think the arborio rice seems to hold up better during the baking, than a regular long grain rice and I love leaving the pine nuts whole, although I think next time I would toast the nuts.
The yogurt garlic sauce is basically a tzatziki, but feels a little more refined, elegant, due to the fact that it's completely smooth. It's quite nice actually, not having the shredded bits of cucumber in the sauce, though it still has the fresh, cucumbery essence and the bite of the garlic. The sauce is the perfect compliment to the grape leaves, but know that it is excellent drizzled over thin slices of grilled lamb as well.
Turned out, we made way too much food. In addition to the grape leaves, there was hummus, smoky grilled eggplant dip, tomato fritters (disappointing), some delicious spanakopita, a lovely couscous salad with grilled vegetables, prawns baked with tomatoes and cubes of feta, swordfish skewers which we served with a creamy mint pesto, an unsuccessful experiment with flaming cheese, and an amazing dessert. It was meant to be a sort of deconstructed baklava. We were going to layer baked squares of sugared phyllo dough with home-made honey ice cream, ground pistachios and a honey orange syrup, like a napoleon, but as the evening wore on we decided to nix the phyllo and just have bowls of the ice cream with the nuts and syrup. There was also to be a lamb dish which we didn't even bother with, but I wound up making later in the week. Did I mention all of this was for 6 people?
Makes between 40 and 60 dolmades.