Dolmadakia, stuffed grape leaves, are a classic Greek recipe with many variations depending on the region. They are a specialty on the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese where they are known simply as filla (leaves). Though they are readily available in restaurants and supermarkets, homemade dolmadakia are relatively simple to make. Once the stuffing is made and you get the hang of the rolling technique, stuffed grape leaves will become a favorite recipe in your Greek cooking repertoire.
The idea to use grape leaves as a wrapping for food probably goes back to prehistory, and at least to the cultivation of grapes which began 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. Stuffed vegetables are common in the cuisine of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia. Most of the recipes for the filling include rice, ground meat, or grains, onion, herbs like dill, mint, or parsley, and spices. The meatless versions are cooked with olive oil and can include only rice or a combination of rice, herbs, onions, and raisins or currants, and/or nuts. Use the combination of herbs you prefer to personalize the dish. Stuffed grape leaves are often made with other stuffed vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
Grape leaves in the jar are readily available in most supermarkets these days, though if you happen to grow your own vines, feel free to pick fresh leaves and use them for stuffing. When using fresh leaves from the vine, small to medium-sized leaves work best for stuffing since the larger leaves can be tough to chew no matter how long you boil them.
Dolmadakia, Stuffed Grape Leaves
2 pounds ground beef
4 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, chopped
Greek sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 cups water
1 cup rice
1 teaspoon dried mint or 3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill and/or parsley
1 jar of grape leaves (1 pound) or fresh grape leaves
To make the filling, brown the ground beef in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Drain any excess fat and add the olive oil and the onions. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, the water, half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of freshly ground pepper. Bring up to a boil and add the rice. Stir in the herbs of your choice and remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, set a pot of water to boil and remove the grape leaves from the jar and rinse under cool water. If using fresh leaves, remove any stems and rinse thoroughly under cool water. Then, cook the whole grape leaves, whether from the jar or fresh, in the boiling water for 5 minutes; drain in a colander.
Cover the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven with any torn grape leaves. Place one grape leaf on your work surface, place a spoonful of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf’s dull side, tuck in the sides and roll to form your dolmadaki. Continue with remaining grape leaves and filling. Place the stuffed grape leaves in pot or Dutch oven, layering them as needed. Once finished rolling and placing the stuffed grape leaves in the pot, pour just enough water to cover them in the pot. Place a plate to keep the stuffed grape leaves submerged, and place a cover slightly ajar on top of the pot and cook over low heat for about an hour or until the filling is cooked through. There should be some cooking liquid left after a half hour, but check in case it evaporates too quickly before the stuffed grape leaves are done in which case more water can be added and you can continue simmering until done.