Friday, 9 March 2012

Cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal: Dolmadakia (Οικονομικά ντομαδάκια)

Prices are in euro (valid in Hania). All ingredients are Greek or locally sourced; those marked with * are considered frugal here because they are cheap and/or people have their own supplies.  

Dolmadakia - stuffed vine leaves - are often served as an appetiser in Greek tavernas. They are an oily rice dish, which makes them quite filling. They become a super-frugal meal when you have your own supply of leaves, like most Cretan rural dwellers.

 Zucchini flowers and choi sum leaves; dolmadakia are made all year round from seasonal leaves.

Stuffed leaves with herbed rice are a quintessential dish associated grapevine leaves and Greek summer. But you can also eat these parcels in winter, using a variety of whatever fresh locally sourced leaves are available according to the season. Possible leaves for the season which can be used for stuffing are lettuce, spinach, sorrel (also known as dock) and Swiss chard, all easy to grow in Crete's mild winter climate. In this way, I can make these little parcels most of the year round. In the summer, we also use squash flowers. This year, we even grew some very unusual (for Crete) leafy greens: choi sum, a popular leafy green in Chinese cuisine. The only prerequisite when choosing a species of leaf for making rice parcels is to ensure that it will not disintegrate when it is stuffed, layered and cooked. Small leaves can be used, and although they may look tricky to fill, with a bit of advice from an experienced yiayia, they can come out very pretty too.

To make super-frugal dolmadakia (serves 4, about 8-10 dolmadakia per person), you need:
about 40-50 medium- to large-sized leaves of edible greens* (only 30-40 will be rolled up - you may need to cut them to a smaller size if they are too big (eg spinach leaves are bigger than vine leaves)
1 teaspoon rice per individual leaf parcel (ie about 30-40 teaspoons rice; ~50 cents)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato paste (or one large juicy tomato, pureed)*
a few sprigs of parsley, mint and dill* (or fennel, which we have plenty of)
a small cup of olive oil*
a sprinkling of salt, pepper and oregano*
more olive oil for cooking*

First of all, clean your leaves well, making sure they are free from dirt. Then blanch them by placing them in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain the leaves over the side of the pot, taking care not to burn them. In another wide shallow pot, place 5 leaves on the base.

Place all the ingredients except the leaves in a bowl and mix together. Place a tablespoon of the mixture on each leaf and roll it up, a little like the way fish and chips is rolled up in newspaper. Place each dolmadaki on top of the leaves lining the pot. Place up to two or so layers of dolmadakia in the pot (three full layers may not cook evenly).

When ready to cook, cover with another 5 leaves. Then pour a 1 cup mixture of olive oil and water over the dolmadakia. Cover the rice parcels with a plate, before placing the lid of the pot over it. Cook over moderate heat for 40-50 minutes. Be careful when removing the pot - it will burn!

Greeks usually eat dolmadakia with plain yoghurt or tzatziki, to dip the parcels in. You can also accompany the dolmadakia with a piece of feta or any other kind of cheese instead. A tomato-based salad completes this meal. You really don't need any bread with this dish. Vegans simply eat them plain.

If rolling up leaves is too much trouble for you, a variation of this dish can be made by simply layering the leaves and rice mixture. The same ingredients used to make this dish can also be used to make spanakorizo (spinach risotto). Because dolmadakia are generally considered to be quite a fiddly piece of culinary work, bear in mind that you can freeze them stuffed, but they must not be defrosted  - they need to be cooked straight out of the freezer.

Total cost of meal: about 1.60 euro, together with the salad and yoghurt; 40 cents per serving.

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