03 June 2010

Dolmas — stuffed grape leaves

I used to buy stuffed grapevine leaves — in French, feuilles de vigne farcies — in tins when I lived in the U.S. I'm sure they must be available that way here in France, but I've never seen any in our Saint-Aignan supermarkets. For some reason, I got the idea of making some late last summer. They are a Greek concoction called Dolmas.

When I read about making dolmas, all the recipes said you must use the tender young leaves that appear on the grapevines in the spring. That meant I had to wait the better part of a year before I could try my hand at it. I know you can buy grape leaves in jars and cans, probably in Paris and maybe in Tours or Blois, but not around here.

Untreated grapevines with tender green leaves,
in our back garden

So I had to use fresh grape leaves. Lucky for us, we have a dozen or so grapevines in our back yard. They have hardly ever produced enough grapes to be of any great interest — maybe they need to be fertilized or otherwise sprayed and treated, and we don't do anything to improve them. They are pretty to look at, and they have very nice leaves. We know, at least, that those leaves haven't been sprayed with any noxious chemicals. They're perfect for home-made dolmas.

Une feuille de vigne

After washing and de-stemming the grape leaves, you need to blanch them. That means to cook them in simmering salted water for at least 3 minutes to soften them and make them pliable (literally, foldable). As soon as they are blanched, put them in a cold water bath to stop the cooking.

Blanched leaves soaking in brine

I picked 50 leaves off our vines, trying to get ones that were tender and green but also large enough to be wrapped around a ball of stuffing. I blanched them in batches of 10, cooled them in cold water, and then spread each leaf out and made a neat pile of them in a deep round dish. Pour salted water over them — use the liquid they blanched in after it has cooled. This way you can store them for a day or two in the refrigerator.

Lots of parsley and lemon juice for the rice stuffing

Then make the stuffing. There are many recipes, of course, and some include meat. The three essential stuffing ingredients, however, are cooked rice, herbs, olive oil, and lemon juice. Onions and toasted pine nuts are common ingredients, and the herbs used often are parsley and either dill or mint.

Rice with herbs, pine nuts, and currants (raisins de Corinthe)

Here's the meatless recipe I came up with after looking at a few in both English and French on the Internet:
Rice stuffing for Dolmas

1¼ cups (150 g) raw rice
1 onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups chicken broth (or water)
½ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup dried currants (tiny raisins)
¼ cup (or more) chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup (or more) chopped fresh mint
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. allspice
3 Tbsp. white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon (for the juice and the rind)

Cook the onion in olive oil until it softens. Add the rice and cook it in the olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the broth and cook on low heat until the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. The rice doesn't need to be completely cooked at this point, because it will cook later for quite a while inside the grape leaves.

Toast the pine nuts and add them to the warm rice along with with the currants (raisins), herbs, and spices. Mix well and and add the juice of a lemon and a little white wine — save the lemon rind to cook with the stuffed leaves. Season the rice mixture with salt and pepper, stir well, and let cool.
To stuff the leaves, take them one by one out of the brine, spread it on the work surface, and put a teaspoon or two of the rice stuffing just where the stem was. Fold up the bottom of the leaf and then the sides. Roll the leaf up into a little log shape, filled with the stuffing.

Place a bit of stuffing on the leaf and roll it up.

Pack the stuffed leaves in a single or double layer in a pan so that they won't come apart when they cook. Pour on a cup or two of hot water — not quite enough to cover the leaves completely. Drizzle in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and scatter the cut-up lemon rind on top. Cover the leaves with a an oven-proof plate to hold them in place.

Stuffed leaves ready to be transferred to a pan and cooked

Put the pan on top of the stove and bring it to the simmer. Be careful not to let it scorch on the bottom. Then put it in a 300ºF/160ºC oven and let it cook gently for 45 minutes to an hour. Lower the heat it if it boils too hard. Most of the liquid will evaporate, leaving a lemony olive oil sauce in the bottom of the pan.

The stuffed grapevine leaves after an hour
in the oven at low temperature

Let the stuffed leaves cool in the pan before removing them to a serving platter. Then put them in the refrigerator for at least an hour before you serve them. They are good with a glass of wine cold white, rosé, or red, as you prefer. They will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

The grapevine leaves, parsley, and pine nuts give the dolmas a resiny taste that is brightened up by the lemon juice and enriched by olive oil. Mint and raisins lend just a little sweetness.

Serve the dolmas cold or at room temperature.

My memories of Greek foods like Dolmas come from both France and the U.S. One year in Paris, I was in classes at the Sorbonne with a Greek woman from Salonica. At Christmastime she went home to spend the holidays with her family, and when she came back to Paris is January she brought us a batch of stuffed cabbage leaves that she called Dolmades, which her mother had made. They were rich and lemony in taste, stuffed with ground meat. It was a great dinner.

In the 1970s I also lived near Chicago for a few years and had friends whose parents or grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. from Greece earlier in the century. We used to enjoy going to the restaurants in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood, eating Dolmas and many other Greek dishes.


  1. I wonder if, when they're blanched, the leaves could be frozen for later use?

  2. Ken, They look very YUM. I have Macedonian friends who make great Dolmas and on a different slant, my mum made great cabbage rolls.

  3. i love stuffed grape leaves ....brought them to a neighborhood party once & nobody even knew what they were....even fewer decided to taste! chm, i have a feeling that freezing the tender leaves & then thawing them would make them too fragile to use

  4. Excellent. Naturally gluten free!
    Peter has to make those soon for me.

    But where to get those leaves in Calgary?

  5. It's so cool that so much of what you make is from your own back yard, literally. And, you're so able to use just about every part of everything you cook with (saving broth from poaching, etc.) Whenever I read these posts about something you've made from your yard, it reminds me of a time in Paris, in your office, I think, when you said, "Pour les Français, tout est mangeable." :)) That always stuck with me.

    Looks great!


  6. We have frozen blanched grape leaves, stacking about 10 and rolling them up tightly. I canned some once but canning is such a nuisance.

    Now I just make stuffed grape leaves once a year. I take a big cake pan and scissors out to the vine and cut them right into the pan so the stem stays on the vine, then pour boiling water over them. When they turn color I put them on a rack to drain. I stuff them right away.

    Your recipe sounds delicious. I never thought of baking them, but that would give better flavor than simmering.

  7. They certainly look good. Robb's father used to make stuffed cabbage that was really good.

  8. Ken - we are back from the Auvergne northern part and sorry to say we were a bit disappointed in the region - plus the weather stunk - too early I think for alot of sites to be open - we liked our gite but not well located to exploring to the SW where most of the nice villages etc are without am hours ++ drive! maybe you are following my wife's blog for further detail


    anyway we did get a nice taste of Truffade, Aligot and Poundi - the latter at around 9E for a 3 oz slice!!! we will try your receipe soon as we liked it as an appetizer!!

    would like to explore the South reaches of the area around Salers like you did for a week and then move further size to Minervois where Loulou is for another week - maybe next year

  9. That recipe sounds so good, my mouth is watering. Definitely a print-and-save one. Thanks.

  10. One recipe I read said that you can spread the leaves out on parchment paper and freeze them that way. I assume you could make many layers of paper and leaves. then when the leaves thaw, in theory, you could get them off the paper and stuff them with rice.

  11. Where can you buy dolmas pre made in the west coast? I buy them here in Ohio at Giant Eagle. I'm moving to Wells,Nevada near the Idaho and Utah borders. They don't have giant eagle in the west coast. I'm a truck driver trying to eat as healthy as I can! Any ideas anyone??? Trayce

  12. Tracye, wish I could help. The West Coast is one thing, but the Nevada-Utah border is something entirely different. Maybe in Salt Lake City there's a big supermarket that would have dolmas?


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