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Dolmades for Days: Elegant Appetizers for the Summertime

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


With a warming climate, Willamette Valley pinot noir producers are rejoicing. While great news for winos, let’s take a minute to appreciate an often overlooked part of the vine: grape leaves. After all, without leaves, grape vines could never turn sunshine into the succulent fruit we so covet. This spring, try stuffing these tender spring leaves for dolmades. It’s not only Greeks who love dolmades. Dolma is actually a Turkish word, meaning ‘stuffed.’ Egyptians eat teeny-tiny dolmades as a hot main dish, sometimes subbing cabbage or fresh lettuce for grape leaves. Northern Iraqis munch on dolmades flavored with pomegranate juice, dunking them in a tomato sauce instead of a lemon yogurt sauce as in Lebanon or Romania. Cooked dolmades also freeze very well, so make a hundred or so for impressing guests all summer. 


Grape vines grow in gardens all over the city, trellising nimbly along fences and gazebos. Generous Portland gardeners would hardly mind sharing a couple dozen in exchange for a taste of your adorable little masterpieces. All species of cultivated grape leaves are edible; the trick is to select ones at just the right tenderness for stuffing. If they are too delicate they will tear when you stuff them. And unless you are part goat, leaves that are too mature will be tough and too fibrous to nom. First, confirm that the vines have not been sprayed with pesticides. Pick leaves that are bright green, without holes or sunburn. Whether the leaves are commercially prepared or fresh, all grape leaves need to be blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds.  Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer. Wash the grape leaves well and place five at a time into the boiling water for 30 seconds each. Remove the leaves with tongs and snip off the stems. Your leaves are now ready to roll. 


Jarred grape leaves are available in town. They come packed in a salty brine, necessitating a blanching to wash off the salt. For west siders, Bazaar International Market sells jars of grape leaves alongside luscious baba ghanouj and pickled peppers (10255 SW Canyon Road, 503-641-1352). Foti’s Greek Deli on 17th and E Burnside offers gyros and pre-made dolmades for those too harried to roll their own (1740 E Burnside St., 503-232-0274). 

Vegan Dolmades with Rice 

The trick to flavorful dolmades is to ‘risotto’ the rice inside its grape leaf package, using uncooked rice in the stuffing. As they cook they slowly plump up, resulting in each grain bursting with the taste of refreshing mint, bright lemon and warm pine nuts. Adapt the recipe below to your tastes and what you have on hand.

Makes 20 dolmades:

  • 20 fresh or brined grape leaves
  • 1 cup uncooked rice 
  • One diced onion
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp each of minced mint and parsley
  • 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup dried currants or cherries, or small red grapes
  • juice of one lemon
  • dash of cinnamon


1. Sauté a diced onion until translucent. Add the garlic and toasted pine nuts and sauté for two minutes. 

2. Mix in one cup of uncooked rice, the fresh mint and parsley, and the juice of one lemon. (If you would like to add meat for the carnivores in your family, substitute the rice for two cups of ground lamb.) For sweetness, add fresh currants, small red grapes, or delicious dried Hood River cherries. Add dashes of cinnamon, salt and pepper to taste. let the mixture sit while you prepare the grape leaves. 

3. To roll, place one leaf underside up on a plate. Place 1-2 teaspoons of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold the right and left sides to the middle then roll from bottom to top (away from you) to make a small cylinder. It’s very important to wrap each one loosely, as the rice will expand when cooking. If you’re using meat instead of rice, stuff with 1-2 tablespoons of mixture and wrap each package snugly, as the meat will not expand as much as rice would. 

4. Place the dolmades in a large sauté pan, seam side down. You can stack them at least two layers high, but three layers will result in uneven cooking. Pour one cup of olive oil and the juice of one lemon over the dolmades. Cover with a heavy plate or baking dish and add water to the level of the plate. Bring the water to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for one hour. The dolmades are done when the rice or meat is cooked through.  

5. Serve with tzatziki sauce or lemon and extra virgin olive oil. Uncork a bottle of your favorite Oregon pinot noir and dip in. 

Goat Cheese Stuffed Grape Leaves

For a quick barbeque appetizer, grill melt-in-your-mouth pockets of chevre for a taste of the Greek Isles. 

  • 12 jarred grape leaves
  • 1 teaspoon each of minced dried thyme, dried rosemary, and dried lavender
  • One 12-ounce log of soft goat cheese, chilled
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • Grilled olive bread, for serving


1. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add the grape leaves and boil for 30 seconds; drain. Blanch the leaves a second time in fresh boiling water. Drain again, pat dry and cut off the stems. Spread the leaves out on a work surface, vein sides up.

2. Light a grill or heat a grill pan. In a shallow dish, combine the thyme, rosemary and lavender. Cut the goat cheese into 12 equal rounds. Lightly roll the edge of each round in the herbs. Set a round in the center of each grape leaf and season lightly with salt. Drizzle each round with 1/2 teaspoon of oil and wrap them in the leaves. Lightly brush the packages with olive oil.

3. Grill the packages over moderately high heat for 2 minutes per side, until the leaves are crisp on the outside and the cheese is slightly melted. Serve with grilled olive bread. 

(Food and Wine, March 2010)

An urban farmer and master gardener, Amélie Rousseau writes for fellow explorers and eaters of the plant kingdom. It's a jungle out there. 


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