While using up my bag of mixed greens from Pitchfork and Crow this past week, I found myself selecting out the kale and chard leaves, but saving the collards for another use since I’ve never actually worked with them before. These were tender baby collards, not the standard elephant-ear variety you usually see, and they reminded me so much of grape leaves that I decided to make them into dolmades. To prepare the leaves for wrapping, I trimmed the stems, running my knife flat along the back where they were thickest to shave them flat and flexible. I cut the few larger ones in half, then gave all 10 pieces a dunk in boiling salted water for about 10 seconds to blanch them.
As a filling for my dolmades, I wanted to use up some leftover bulgur pilaf with onion, garlic, chard stems and greens; to this, I added a squeeze of lemon, a bit of cumin and shredded mint, plus a small amount of ground beef. My ten rolled dolmades were small enough to fit in a ceramic loaf pan; I poured in enough chicken stock tinted with tomato paste to just cover them, then topped off the dish with a sheet of parchment and two ramekins for weight. They baked for 35 minutes and rested for about half an hour to come down toward room temperature while I stirred up a dipping sauce of yogurt, garlic, lemon, salt, and tahini. The finished products were very messy to eat, falling apart (thanks to my pitiful rolling skills) and gushing juices down my wrist; but the flavor was there, the collards were very tender (aside from a few stringy veins), and I have another use for that excess bulgur.
As I was putting that tiny offering of collard dolmades into the oven to braise, I racked my brain for more food options, as I doubted they would be sufficient to satisfy us. I ended up just cooking up some rice for bulk. But, what I realized a bit too late for that night’s dinner, is that I could make dolmades anytime. I have a grape vine in my backyard, people—a decorative grapevine planted by the previous owners of the house, which produces some sort of tiny champagne grape that we never notice until too late because of the huge foliage. For the past 9 years, I could have been making dolmades with freshly picked, unsprayed grape leaves, and instead, I’ve just been wrestling all those vines into the yard debris container.
I couldn’t resist. While the collard dolmades cooked, I sorted through the tangle and chose some likely looking leaves—about palm-sized, neither too large and tough, nor too small and delicate. I rinsed them thoroughly, bundled them up in groups of 6, tied with kitchen twine, and blanched them in hot salted water for 10 seconds, much like the collards. They went into the refrigerator overnight, and starred in night #2 of the dolma take-over.
For the fresh leaves, I decided on a more traditional Greek recipe from The Food and Wine of Greece, a vegetarian stuffing of lentils and rice since I didn’t have any ground lamb. I reduced all the amounts so as not to make a huge pile of food, and used a grain blend that included brown, red, black and wild rice. I cooked some brown lentils for 15 minutes first, with just a bay leaf and a smashed garlic clove, then added the rice along with more water and pinches of cinnamon and lemon zest, and let it all simmer for 35 more minutes. When the filling base was done, I combined it with a cup of crushed tomatoes, a little sautéed onion and garlic, splashes of lemon juice and olive oil, and a bit of shredded mint. Then I rolled them up and stashed them in a shallow oval casserole, on a bed of some of the larger grape leaves.
Like the collard dolmades, I topped my little rolls with a braising liquid, in this case chicken stock and a bit of tomato sauce; also similarly, they were topped with parchment, weighted, and gently cooked at 350F for 35 minutes, then allowed to cool somewhat before eating with some leftover yogurt sauce.
If I’m honest, we didn’t like these as well. Maybe we were missing the meat in the filling, maybe we’re not used to fresh grape leaves (which Jeremy described as “too fruity”), maybe we’re just not Greek enough. I do think I chose leaves of the right size, but I just didn’t care for the flavor of this version. I’ve set aside one more batch of blanched grape leaves in the freezer, so next time I’ll try making dolmades with lamb. But not for a while—I think we’re all dolma’d out for the time being, and ready to move on to the loukoumades!