This is a modern version of an ancient dish. I learned to make dolmades from my friend Jana. She is half Greek and all good cook! I have adjusted her family recipe to suit my tastes-just like I expect you to adjust my recipes to suit your tastes. Have fun!
1 15oz. jar grape leaves (available at my local grocery store--check yours or a Mediterranean grocery)
1 1/2 lbs. lean ground beef (or ground turkey)
1 cup finely diced sweet onion
1 cup white rice (I use basamati)
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano (or 2 teaspoons dried oregano)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 2/3 cup tomato juice, divided
2 large lemons
Carefully remove the grape leaves from the jar. Place in a bowl of warm water and unroll so the stack lies flat. Allow to soak fully submerged for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile mix beef, onion, rice, oregano, salt, pepper and 2/3 cup tomato juice together. Line the bottom of a heavy pot that has a tight fitting lid with a few of the grape leaves. Take one grape leaf at a time and after pinching off the stem stub, smooth open onto a flat surface, vein side up. Set aside any torn leaves to use later. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture onto the leaf and fold into a tight packet. Place the stuffed grape leaf into the pot with the seam side down. Repeat with remaining grape leaves, making sure to pack them into the pot as tightly as possible. After you have one layer, squeeze the juice from 1/2 lemon over the top of that layer before beginning a second layer of dolmades. Repeat layering until you have used all of the meat mixture, about 4 times. Mix 1 cup tomato juice with 1 cup water and pour over the dolmades. Cover the top with grape leaves--torn ones are just fine. Place a weight onto the top (such as a foil packet with pie crust weights in it), cover the pot tightly and place over medium low heat. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours, checking after 45 minutes to make sure there is sufficient liquid in the pot. Add water if there is not. Check every 10 to 15 minutes after that. (You don't want the pot to dry out and the bottom layer to scorch.) Serve hot.
I know that this wrapping is not the traditional way. Traditionally, the meat is placed by the stem to start and finished with the bottom of the leaf showing. I like the heavy veining to show on the finished dolmades, creating a star burst look.
Wrapping is done much like a burrito or egg roll. Be sure to make them tight. Pack them tight into the pot and place a weight onto them as they cook so that they will not expand too much and burst. A heavy plate that can withstand the heat will work. I have heard of people using stone weights, or bowls of ball bearings on top of a plate. Use your imagination, but be mindful of toxicity, cleanliness and heat tolerance. Exploding rocks can really ruin your dinner plans.
The Greeks have been cooking for ages, literally. I enjoy the combination of flavors and think that their cuisine is a healthy one overall. Their culture is classic, again literally. We owe much of our modern western thinking and attitudes to the ancient Greeks. And I can't even begin to describe the architectural influence I have experienced in my professional life. Timeless and rhythmic and elegant and serene and integrated. But that is another blog---