Most Greek women use fresh or home frozen grape leaves, and this makes all the difference. During our spring and early summer Keartisanal cooking classes we pick them from the garden. The leaves toughen as the days get hotter, though, so we use our home-frozen ones which work equally well. If you can get hold of even a few fresh grape leaves, use them as flavoring, placing them between the dolmades. Fresh leaves need to be blanched for about 3 minutes, while frozen tender leaves can be used directly after thawing. Make the dolmades one or two days in advance, let them cool in the pot and then store in the fridge. They taste better the next day.
To serve 8-10 as an appetizer
Two 8-ounce jars grape leaves in brine
2 cups onions, chopped
8-10 scallions, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped, or 1 cup chopped fennel fonds
1 cup dill, chopped
1 cup parsley leaves finely chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 cup olive oil
1/3 -1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, plus 1 lemon, sliced, to decorate
Freshly ground black pepper
Thick Yogurt (optional)
Boil plenty of water in a pot. Carefully separate the grape leaves. Drain them and blanch in batches, for 1 minute in the boiling water. Pass through cold water and drain on paper towels.
Place the onions, scallions, dill, parsley and fennel or fennel bulb in a bowl, add 1 teaspoon salt, and work the mixture with your hands for 1 minute or more, to wilt the vegetables. Add the rice, mint, plenty of pepper and half the olive oil, and stir well to mix.
Line the bottom of a pot with small or torn grape leaves. Take each leaf and place it, vein side up, on a board, stem side towards you. Place about a tablespoon of filling in the center and fold the bottom and sides to cover it. Roll the leaf tightly, like a cigar. Place each stuffed leaf, seam side down, in the pot. Continue with the rest of the leaves, placing the dolmades tightly one next to the other. When the bottom of the pot is filled, continue with one more layer.
Pour 1/3 cup lemon juice and 1 cup water, together with the rest of the olive oil over the dolmades. Place an inverted plate over them, to stop them from unrolling as they cook. The liquid should almost cover them. If it does not, add a little more. Bring to the boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the rice is cooked. Cover the dolmades and let them cool completely. Refrigerate overnight and bring to room temperature before serving, decorated with lemon slices, and accompanied by thick yogurt or additional lemon juice.
VARIATION: With the same stuffing you can fill some zucchini, and cook them together with the grape leaves. They acquire a wonderful flavor!