We searched many years for a stuffed grape leaf that was mind blowing… and we never found one. We wanted Dolmathakia that was exploding with the flavors of Greece… lemon, dill and garlic, Greek oregano and mint from the hills above Santorini, and spicy sausage that tasted handmade. One day our son Tyler came home from having dinner with his buddy down the street, and he spoke with wonder about the stuffed grape leaves he had been served by that Lebanese family. So of course we went straight over there and asked the cook for the secret of her grape leaves. She reluctantly revealed the secret ingredient, after much imploring… … and I will confess this secret in the last paragraph.
Stuffed Grape Leaves with Harissa on top, Ajvar on the bottom, and Pickled Red Onions all over the place!
Like so many iconic meals, stuffed grape leaves are completely dependent on using the best possible ingredients… this seems to be especially true of feasts from Italy and Greece. Fresh aromatic flavors are the hallmark of these cuisines, and we have found that a few choices make all the difference with this meal. California grape leaves seem more tender and delicate in flavor, look for jars from the Napa or Sonoma area. Oregano that is from the Mediterranean, especially Greece, is far more intense than the regular oregano you buy in the spice aisle. We often use dried Greek oregano from Red Bunny Farms, ordered on Amazon. Fresh mint from our garden makes a huge impression on the meal and is my favorite flavor in this feast. We use our own reduced rich chicken broth, poured over the grape leaves before baking, which makes them juicy and moist. We like Basmati rice for our stuffed grape leaves, they are less starchy and more crunchy.
But the secret we promised is this… bake them on fresh stalks of rhubarb. Suddenly you have that wonderful flavor tension between sweet and sour, that jaw aching feeling of an explosion of authentic Greek flavors. During the winter holidays, when rhubarb is out of season and is even difficult to find frozen because strawberry-rhubarb pie is so popular during Thanksgiving, you can use cranberries, which have a very similar tart flavor. The feature photo of the stuffed grape leaves just coming out of the oven is taken from this year’s Thanksgiving, and we used cranberries… and they added intense traditional flavors to our eclectic Tandoori turkey feast.
And the best part of all, in the making of this feast, is that you must enlist the help of all the family members and guests, ESPECIALLY all the kids and teens, in one long production line of stuffing and folding and dipping and arranging. They will remember this feast their whole lives, and teach it to their kids, only revealing the secrets to those future cooks who, like myself, are searching for the umami bomb of stuffed grape leaves.
Don’t forget to slather on lots of spicy hot Ajvar… our last secret. Kali orecksi!
1 ½ pounds ground hot Italian pork sausage (or make your own using ground turkey thighs or chicken thighs with added fennel seeds, crushed red pepper or cayenne, Greek oregano, paprika, and salt)
8 cups chicken broth, 5 for making the rice and 3 for the two baking pans (we boil down the bones of an entire rotisserie chicken)
1 jar of grape leaves (we use a 16 ounce jar of Orlando brand)
3 cups Basmati rice, far less likely to be mushy like most rice types
6 to 8 large stalks of fresh rhubarb (if rhubarb is out of season and you can’t find it frozen at the supermarket, use a bag of whole fresh cranberries simmered in a cup of water for 5 minutes with an added tablespoon of honey, and place the stuffed grape leaves on top of them)
1 jar Ajvar, hot and spicy
1 large onion, finely chopped (we use a small food processor for the onion and red pepper)
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
8 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
6 lemons, juiced
1 heaping tablespoon dried Greek oregano
2 cups fresh mint, chopped
3/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
½ to 3/4 cup tomato and/or roasted red pepper soup
1 ½ cups extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt and pepper, to taste
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. In a 12 to 14 inch sauce pan warm ¼ cup olive oil and heat garlic until it foams and then turn heat to medium high. Add chopped onion and red pepper and sauté until translucent.
Add another ¼ cup of olive oil and then the rice. Slightly reduce temperature and sauté rice with tomato or red pepper soup, 1 heaping teaspoon dried Greek Oregano and 1 cup chopped mint. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix and sauté but do not brown rice.
Add 5 cups chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 12 to 16 minutes until the rice is just al dente.
While the rice is cooking, fry ground hot Italian sausage in a sauté pan with olive oil until just cooked. In a large bowl, add the sausage, ½ cup mint, and all the dill to rice mixture and allow to cool.
Cut the rhubarb in long strips and place in bottom of two large glass cooking pans. In a large bowl combine 3 cups chicken broth, 1 cup olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, 2 teaspoons dried Greek Oregano, 1/2 cup chopped mint.
Carefully remove the folded leaves from the jar and gently unfold them. On a clean cutting board, place a grape leaf shiny side down and place a spoonful of rice mixture on top of the stem and fold like a burrito. The key is to keep spoonfuls of rice mixture small and manageable so it’s easier to tightly fold a grape leaf without it falling apart.
Dip stuffed and folded grape leaf into chicken broth/olive oil/herb mixture and place on rhubarb in glass dish. Repeat. Endlessly. But then, with the help of the whole family, suddenly you are done, and they are ready to bake.
The Dolmathakia should be touching, side by side, on top of the rhubarb – as many as you can fit in the pan. Pour the left-over chicken broth (probably 3 cups) into both pans, assuring an even split.
Cover both pans with foil and place in oven. Cook for 90 minutes. At the 60 minute mark check to make sure there is still some liquid in the bottom. For last 10 minutes, uncover and bake at 400 degrees to slightly brown them.
Serve with yogurt, cucumber and whole dill… also very important, plunge it deeply into the spicy Ajvar and Harissa. Opa!