Dolmathes are an essential part of Greek Cuisine for me, and no Greek feast can be complete without these delicious rice stuffed vine leaves. Dolmathes - or dolmas, which is the Turkish name they’re more commonly known by - originated sometime during the Ottoman Empire and have many different variations depending on the region. Though they may not have originated in Greece exactly, they have certainly become synonymous with the culture and the cuisine; and to be honest it’s the simple Greek preparation of dolmathes that I love and appreciate the most.
The cool thing about dolmathes is that they’re one of the few - possibly the only? - dish in Greek cuisine that is traditionally vegan. That’s right, true Greek dolmathes are vegan, they contain no meat, no cheese, no egg, and no other dairy products. So don’t allow people to tell you that dolmathes are meat based, or that meatless dolmathes are not traditional or are in some way lacking, because they’re not. Dolmathes have always been one of the many great vegetarian dishes of Greece that just happens to also be vegan. Having said that however, you should be mindful when eating dolmathes in restaurants because there are meat stuffed variations of dolmathes as well. In Greece the meat stuffed versions are called Dolmathakia, but on restaurant menus - at least in North America - rarely is a distinction drawn between the two. Most often all types of dolmathes are simply labeled dolmathes or dolmas and so you’ll want to read the ingredients.
Typically dolmathes are served cold with Avgolemono sauce while dolmathakia are served warm with yogurt sauce, though dolmathes can also be served warm which is usually how I serve mine. Except the leftovers of course which I prefer to eat cold. Believe it or not they taste amazing either way though even if you eat them cold you’ll want to warm your avgolemono up a bit. In restaurants dolmathes are also generally served as an appetizer but served with a nice Greek salad or small side dish they make a wonderful main course in their own right. If you’ve never had dolmathes, and in particular never made your own you really must try it!
They may appear intimidating upon first glance but I assure you they are not as fussy as they seem. In fact preparing them is relatively easy and it’s true that the more often you make them the more you improve. They don’t require any special equipment and all they really ask for is a bit of patience and a gentle hand. Be gentle with your grape leaves so as not to tear them, role your dolmathes tightly like you’re rolling sushi and pack them firmly together. Follow that advice and you shall not be led astray. Though everyone - including myself - is bound to have at least one or two dolmathes burst on them during the cooking process, no worries, they may not look pretty and they may not be the ones you choose to serve to your guests but they taste just fine so scoop ‘em into a bowl to eat the next day and don’t worry about them. My only other advice is that you buy more grape leaves then you think you need, and my reason for this is simple - you never know. You never know what the quality of your leaves will be like, you never know if you’re going to tare any or how many you might tare, and you never know how big or small the leaves are. If you get a jar of small leaves you may want to overlap two leaves to make one dolmathes instead of using one leaf. I tend to do this a lot and it actually makes the process a lot easier. So with all that in mind lets get rolling....
At least a16oz jar of Grape Vine Leaves
1 ½ C Cooked Brown Rice
2 Medium Onions grated
2 Large tomatoes grated
4 tsp or 1 Tbsp Fresh Mint minced (to taste, I typically like more)
1/3 C Olive Oil (or more as needed)
2 ½ C Water
1/4 C Olive Oil
1/4 C lemon Juice or ½ a Lemon Juiced
Sea Salt and Black Pepper to taste
- First bring a pot of water to boiling drop your tomatoes into it for a couple of minutes then dunk in a bowl of ice water. Rub skins until they come off and set aside.
- Grate onions and tomato on a cheese grater, then add it to a bowl with your cooked rice. Add in the mint, salt and pepper to taste and 1/3 C olive oil. This should be enough oil, however depending on how juicy or not juicy your onions and tomatoes are you may want to increase the oil to 1/2 C. It's up to you, but also keep in mind that while you want the mixture moist and flavorful, you don't want it liquidy.
- On a clean cutting board lay out one vine leaf. Place a spoonful of filling down the center of the leaf. Carefully but firmly roll tucking in the sides as you go until you’ve formed a neat, tight roll. Think of it like rolling sushi or a burrito. Repeat this process until all filling has been used. Remember if your leaves are small or a little bedraggled you can always use a second leaf, overlapping it with the first to create a larger sturdier roll.
- Place a pot big enough to hold your dolmathes in a single layer, on the stove. Place reserved tomato skins at the bottom and then pile your dolmathes on top. Try to keep them in a single layer, packing them in tightly. If you need to go two high, or have a few extras on top it’s okay, but they cook best when packed tight so try to cram them in. Gently of course. Add the 2 ½ cups of water, plus the 1/4 of olive oil to the pot.
- Place a plate, or another pot inside the pot on top of the dolmathes to hold them down then cook over medium-low heat for fifteen minutes.
- Remove the plate or pot and discard. Give the dolmathes a gentle stir and add the lemon juice. Then cover with a lid and cook another fifteen minutes.
- Drain off any liquid that may remain in the pot then remove dolmathes from the pot with a slotted spoon and place on a serving plate or individual plates. Discard tomato skin.
- Serve with a huge dollop of Avgolemono sauce and enjoy!
PS: In retrospect I probably should have taken a picture of one of these guys cut in half so you could see the inside, apologies!