Fine edible leaves stuffed with rice: this dish epitomises Southern European cuisine. It has as many variations as there are cooks: vine leaves or cabbage leaves could be used, cooked in red sauce or egg-and-lemon sauce, in the pot or on the stove, with meat, or raisins and currants - they are made in a variety of ways, and everyone has their own personal favorite version.
My mother would always use the same kind of filling for yemista and dolmadakia (the diminutive form of dolmades), grapevine leaves stuffed with rice. Her favorite way to make dolmadakia was to place them as the 'cap' for yemista (both in the oven and on the stove). She would fill eggplant, tomato, bell pepper, potato and courgette shells with the classic yemista rice mixture. Then she would use the remaining mixture to make little rolled-up vine leaf parcels (hand-picked from her garden grapevine - it never produced grapes - washed and frozen in small batches), which she placed on the top of a stuffed vegetable, as a protective covering instead of the vegetable 'cap', so that the rice wouldn't escape from the vegetable shell. The aroma emanating from the oven when she made yemista with dolmades was always overpowering. The house smelt like a Mediterranean island, hiding the damp grassy smell of a typical Wellington day. Along with vine leaves, she also used the flowers from zucchini (courgette) plants (called anthous in Greek), which she picked freshly from the plants in her garden, prepared them for stuffing by removing the anther, and stored them in the fridge until she had enough to use them for making dolmades. They were my dad's favorite rice parcels.
It's Kathara Deftera, a public holiday usually occurring in March, and the grapevines in the garden (ours were recently pruned in preparation for its summer growth) are bare of leaves. This doesn't stop traditional cooks from making dolmadakia parcels out of season. Dolmades are traditionally made with vine leaves, but they can also be made with any soft edible leaf that is in season, while tougher leaves are parboiled to make them flexible enough to be stuffed and rolled up. Apart from grapevine leaves, I've also used sorrel, silverbeet (Swiss chard) and Cos lettuce, which makes a tasty parcel with its crunchy leaf.
I have been given some labatha (sorrel, also known as dock) leaves by my aunt. "Labatha leaves don't make little parcels," she warned me. "They're going to look like little triangles if you roll them up right." I love unconventional deviations in cooking traditional food. "And the woman who gave them to me doesn't chop off the stem, so hers always look like little purses." she added. Old-fashioned 60s handbags, more like it. I enjoyed the way she described the different shapes of dolmadakia according to the kind of leaf used.
The only point where I draw the line is in adding mince to the stuffing. Never in my house; I don't like the aftertaste it leaves in your mouth. Yemista and dolmades are often made in the summer, a time when everyone should be eating lightly because of the high temperatures. Adding meat to a very summery dish spoils its simple flavour, and masks the scent of the herbs which play an important role in the stuffing. Cabbage rolls are an exception, because they are made with a winter season crop. They are also cooked in an egg-and-lemon sauce, a dressing often associated with meat and winter meals. I once made stuffed cabbage rolls with slivers of beef mixed into the rice from a recipe I saw on television, and they were superb.
The lambatha (sorrel) leaves are very fine, with the exception of the stem, which runs thickly through the centre. All leaves that are used in making dolmades must be blanched in hot water, so that they are flexible enough to stuff and roll up. Cabbage requires much more blanching time than sorrel, spinach, lettuce and vine leaves, which merely require a five-second dip in very hot water, otherwise they will be difficult to handle. Always dip the leaves stem-first, so that they get more time in the hot water where they need it. They then need to be drained. My mother used to drain vine leaves in the following way: next to the bowl of hot water, she'd have a colander (with a soup plate under it to catch the excess moisture), where all the leaves were stacked neatly and allowed to drain, after which she had her helper (me) pick them up one by one and lay them over the rim of the colander. She would then take a leaf and fill it, rolling it up and placing it into the pot before she went onto the next leaf. It's important to let the leaves drain well, otherwise they will go mushy with the excess moisture, and they will tear when you try to pick them up. The rice mixture will not be contained securely if you make this mistake. Making dolmadakia is not as easy as making kalitsounia; the former is hand-crafted piece-by-piece, whereas the latter can be made in conveyor-belt fashion!
Just before I started making these parcels, another aunt phoned me from Athens to wish me happy Koulouma, and gave me all sorts of advice about sorrel leaves: they melt easily in heat, so don't cook them too long; use very little filling in sorrel leaves, because they're fiddly to roll up; cook them ahead of time to let them set, otherwise they won't be easy to handle (they break up); tip out the pot onto a plate to save the sorrel leaves from breaking up. That has just convinced me to follow my other aunt's advice, and cook the sorrel parcels in the oven with some yemista.
Sorrel leaves are generally light green, with red spiny lines running down their middle. They can also be blotched with reddish-brown spots, which give them a dirty rusty look. For culinary purposes, this does not detract from the taste. The appearance put me off them a little, so I used the spotted leaves to line the baking tin before placing the sorrel leaf parcels, as well as for covering the top of the tin (after which I covered it again with a piece of aluminium foil.
large thin leaves from seasonal edible greens: sorrel, cabbage, spinach, grapevine and lettuce are the most popular; you need as many leaves as will fit nicely into a saucepan, in no more than two layers (you can fit up to 40-50 of these parcels depending on the size of the saucepan)
the traditional rice mixture used for yemista (without the addition of grated vegetables - they would spoil the taste of this very fine meal; calculate 1 tablespoon of rice for every vegetable shell, and 1/2 teaspoon of rice per sorrel leaf)
some spare sorrel and/or fennel leaves
Prepare the leaves by blanching them (or boiling for five minutes in the case of cabbage), draining them well and laying them out ready to use. I'm using sorrel today, so my parcels will look like little triangles, in a similar fashion as that used to make the famous Greek filo cheese pies. Work out the amount of rice mixture needed for the number of leaves you are rolling.
The mixture is laid at the stem end of the leaf, and the leaf is rolled up into a triangle. Make each parcel individually, and place it in the oven tin (or cooking pot if cooking them on the stove), which you have 'carpeted' with some sorrel leaves to protect the delicate parcels from scorching or burning and sticking to the base of the tin or pot. Place up to two layers of rice-stuffed leaves into the tin (and similarly in the pot; sorrel leaves break up easily when cooked, so more layers are inadvisable).
Pour over a glass of water and a little oil, cover the parcels with more sorrel leaves (to retain moisture and not break up or burn), the cover the tin with aluminium foil. For cooking yemista/dolmadakia in a saucepan, you need to place a plate over the parcels to weigh them down, and cover the pot with a lid. Cooking times differ between pot and oven; the oven needs a longer time (more than an hour) than the pot (no more than 40 minutes).
Soggy rice is never desirable. After 25 minutes, check that there are enough liquids in the pot, as the dolmadakia will stick to the bottom of the pan if there isn't enough liquid. To check this, tilt the pot to see how much liquid there is. Add some water little by little to ensure that you don't overdo it. When the rice is done, remove the plate. Don't forget that it's now very hot! Have a pair of tongs and a kitchen glove ready to help you do this. Don't play around with hot sorrel leaf parcels; wait until they have cooled down a little to pick them up, using a fork and spoon to dig out the delicate dolmadakia out of the pot. We always have these with some Greek strained yoghurt (when we're not fasting; many people in the West use sour cream) and a salad. You don't need much more to be reminded of spring!
These parcels make a great picnic food. Place them in the tupperware you will be serving them in, put them in the fridge, and they will set (rice contains starch) to the point that they are turned into finger food. Take them to a field on Kathara Deftera (Clean Monday) and savour them outdoors!
This post is dedicated to my aunts, Dimitra and Antonia.
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MORE WILD GREENS RECIPES:
Kalitsounia in the oven
Horta in winter
Horta in summer
Swiss chard (silverbeet)
Eggs with mustard greens
MORE RICE RECIPES:
Simple pilafi rice for children
Yemista - ayemista