The garden offers me plenty of large chard leaves, often in different colors, all through May, and it is so easy to roll them into large bundles, preferably without blanching them first.
In my last book I have the vegetarian version of the stuffed leaves, although the original idea came to me from the salt-cod-stuffed lettuce leaves I had many years ago at a tavern near the archaeological site of ancient Corinth. Here is my adaptation of that recipe.
Make the dish at least a day in advance and let cool completely before refrigerating; then you can serve it room temperature or reheat briefly reheat it. Accompany with yogurt, labne or with skordalia (garlic sauce).
The fish (see Variation):
1 pound salt cod soaked overnight in several changes of water and drained
(or substitute any firm-fleshed fish fillets)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white or rosé wine
1-2 cinnamon sticks
The vegetables, rice etc.
2/3 cup olive oil
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white part plus some of the tender green)
2 cups onions, coarsely chopped
3 bunches large or medium chard leaves (see Note), stems cut off and reserved
4 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1-2 teaspoon Maraş pepper or a pinch crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
1 cup medium-grain rice, such as Arborio, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes and drained
1 1/2 cup ripe tomatoes, cored and diced, or canned diced tomatoes with their liquid
2 medium carrots, grated
1 packed cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 ½ teaspoons salt or more, to taste
Juice of 1 lemon and for serving 1-2 extra lemons, sliced or quartered
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Greek yogurt, labne or skordalia (garlic sauce) for serving (optional)
Drain the salt cod or fish fillets on paper towels, then remove any bones and skin and cut into thin strips. Sauté the fish in 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet for about 4 minutes, or until firm. Pour in the wine, add the cinnamon sticks and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large skillet and sauté the leeks and onions over medium heat until soft, 8-10 minutes. Finely chop 1 1/2 cups of the tender chard stems and add to the leeks and onions. Sauté for 3 minutes and stir in the garlic, pepper and rice. Turn a few times. When the mixture starts to sizzle pour in the tomatoes, stir a couple of times, remove from the heat and transfer to a large bowl.
Add the fish, discarding the cinnamon sticks, the carrots, parsley, dill, allspice, turmeric and salt. Stir, cover and let stand for 10 minutes.
Line a pot with chard stems and any torn leaves.
Place a chard leaf, shiny side down, on the work surface, with the stem toward you.
Press and slide the back of a knife along the middle core of the leaf to crush the inner stem and to tenderize the leaf. Depending on the size of the leaf, place 2-3 tablespoons of the filling in a vertical line near the stem. Fold the two adjacent sides of the leaf over the filling, and then begin to fold and roll from the bottom. Roll-up the leaf like a cigar, not too tightly, making sure to bring the side edges in as you roll-up from the bottom
This will create a neat package. Place the stuffed leaf, seam side down, on top of the stems.
Continue with the remaining leaves and stuffing, placing the stuffed chard leaves tightly next to each other. When the bottom of the pot is full, make a second layer. Cover with any remaining leaves.
Pour the rest of the olive oil, lemon juice and enough water to almost cover the stuffed leaves. Place an inverted heatproof plate over the stuffed leaves to keep them from rising and unrolling as they cook. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes or until the rice is cooked. To check remove one stuffed leaf and taste.
Remove from the heat and let cool for at least 20 minutes in the pot. Carefully transfer to a serving platter, including the stems at the bottom, which are delicious!
If there is too much broth increase the heat and boil to reduce. Pour over the stuffed leaves.
Cool, and if you can, refrigerate the stuffed chard leaves overnight. They taste better the next day. To serve bring to room temperature and drizzle with fresh lemon and extra-virgin olive oil. If you like, accompany with thick yogurt, labne or skordalia (garlic sauce) if you like.
Use any kind of large chard leaf: white, yellow or red.
You can also stuff the outer leaves of romaine lettuce, or the smaller leaves of Chinese cabbage.
VARIATION: You can omit the fish and increase the rice to 1 1/3 cup, adding also 2/3 cup toasted pine nuts if you like. Make sure you adjust the seasonings; I suggest you part-cook in a small skillet 1-2 tablespoons of the stuffing and taste, before stuffing the leaves.