Monday, July 30, 2012

Making dolmas for my reading group

Some weeks back I wrote a bit about Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea -- the post was Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize. I read Murdoch's novel because it was my reading group's pick, and we met to discuss it yesterday. Quite a number of us dropped out of this month's gathering at the eleventh hour -- our reading group has been going since 1998, and it's always been hard to schedule in the summers -- but an intrepid four of us met at my place, and noshed, and talked about Charles Arrowby's outsized narcissism.

Inspiration for things to nosh on was easy: Murdoch wrote Arrowby as a self-congratulating gourmet, in the English (!) style. Leaving aside judgement of his tastes, Arrowby tends toward the savory ... not exclusively, but with a decided preference: anchovy toasts and canned clams and spaghetti with a little bit of butter and dried basil as I quoted in late June, but here's more, again in Arrowby's own voice:
What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast, with or without the addition of bloater paste? Or plain boiled onions with a little cold corned beef if desired? And well-made porridge with brown sugar and cream is a dish fit for a king.

(Bloater paste? I didn't know either.)

And still more:
For lunch I ate the kipper fillets rapidly unfrozen in boiling water (the sun had done most of the work) garnished with lemon juice, oil, and a light sprinkling of dry herbs. Kipper fillets are arguably better than smoked salmon unless the latter is very good. With these, fried tinned new potatoes. (No real new potatoes yet.) Potatoes are for me a treat dish, not a dull everyday chaperon. Then Welsh rarebit and hot beetroot. The shop sliced bread is less than great, but all right toasted, with good salty New Zealand butter. Fortunately I like a wide variety of those crackly Scandinavian biscuits which are supposed to make you thin...

And here:
He drank beer and I drank white wine while Gilbert, who had now donned his apron, quickly and discretely laid out and then served luncheon for two on the bamboo table. [...] We had ham cooked in brown sugar to a recipe of Gilbert's, with a salad of Italian tinned tomatoes and herbs. (These excellent tomatoes are best eaten cold. They may be warmed, but never boiled as this destroys the distinctive flavor.) Then cherries with Gilbert's little lemon sponge cakes. Then double Gloucester cheese with very hard biscuits which Gilbert had rebaked in the oven. Out butler, instructed by telepathy, soon made himself scarce. We drank white wine with the meal. Titus ate ravenously.
I'm not a big fan of English cuisine, though I admit to owning a copy of Mrs. Beeton's (given to me as a gift, only half-jokingly, by an old, good friend and committed Anglophile). In contemplating refreshments for our reading group, I wasn't up for closely imitating Charles Arrowby's approach to cuisine, though it is our group's tradition for a host to make some gesture toward the culture or cuisine of the book we're discussing.

So I tried to think sharp, tangy, salty, piquant ...

I had recently been reminded of a savory snack that I used to make regularly but haven't in years and years: dolmas -- grape leaves stuffed with rice and more, then gently simmer-steamed in a lemon vinaigrette -- from a recipe I got from yet another friend's housemate, who served them at a dinner some twenty years ago. The housemate's name is Erin; so these, to me, are Erin's dolmas.

I reminded of Erin's dolmas when another friend queried her Facebook universe last month for a recipe. She was contemplating homemade dolmas to satisfy a regular craving without doing so much damage to her coffee budget. Fair enough: I dug Erin's recipe out of my digital archive, and copy-pasted it in response.

I've been hankering after the oily, lemony, garlicky treats ever since.

Dolmas are work to make, between assembling ingredients, wrapping the grape leaves, lining a heavy pot with torn leaves to guard against burning, packing the pot, and a couple of hours of slooooooooooooooow boiling. Then several hours' wait while the dense thermal mass cools sufficiently to unpack the dolmas from the pot (photo at right). Only then can you eat them.

The effort and wait are worth it. You are unlikely ever in your life to find dolmas that light up your mouth like Erin's do, not unless you haunt finer Greek eateries than I've found to date (and I've found some fine ones ... if you're in San Francisco with a few friends and a pocket full of money to blow on dinner, you can't go wrong at Kokkari).

But I digress, this isn't a restaurant review. Without further ado, then, here are Erin's Dolmas:

1 16 oz jar grape leaves
3/4 c long-grain rice (or basmati)
3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 lg. onion, minced
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 c currants or golden raisins
pine nuts
black pepper (plenty)

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1/2 c olive oil
juice from 2 lemons
1/2 c water (or more, as necessary)

Boil rice 5 min., then drain.

Mix boiled rice, tomatoes, onions, cinnamon, allspice, rasins, and nuts. Season with salt and plenty of pepper.

Roll the dolmas stem-side of the leaves (underside) in; don't roll them too tightly as they expand a bit when they cook.

Save the torn grape leaves as you go, and line the pot with them (emphasis on the bottom of the pot). Pack the dolmas in, distributing the slices of garlic between the dolmas and the layers.

Mix the olive oil, 1/2 c water, lemon juice into a vinaigrette. Pour over the dolmas in the pot.

Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to very low and simmer for two hours. Add more water if necessary so the dolmas don't burn.
If you make them, let me know how your dolmas turn out!

At our reading group we served Erin's dolmas alongside cheeses and flatbread, artichoke tapanade with garlic-rubbed crostini, herb-dusted almonds roasted in olive oil, and a peach-pecan upsidedown cake. A fine time was had by all, and my reading group pals brought leftovers home.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
A lost midwestern pizza opportunity
Sweetness and light: a transcendent oatmeal-raisin cookie

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