Have you had dolmades? Tasty little packages of lamb mince and rice wrapped up in tender salty vine leaves? Even the canned ones are nice. Fiddly to make at home but worth the effort. Well, so I thought!
Earlier this month I wrote about my love of cooking and humble-bragged about being a half-decent cook. I just got my comeuppance and I have thrown nearly four hours worth of cooking in the green lidded bin (the one destined for council composting).
It all started with the neighbour’s grapevine.
I think the neighbour’s house is an AirBnB or holiday home. From my careful observations, I have determined that it is mostly unoccupied, although sometimes there are groups of people there on the weekends. Someone comes in and cuts the grass every now and then. Again after careful observation, I noticed that the grapevine on my neighbour’s front fence had fat bunches of small red grapes. A-ah, I thought! An opportunity to forage! The neighbours certainly didn’t seem to be using them. The grapes, unfortunately, were well past ripe and riddled with bugs and spider webs. I tried one of the better-looking ones and my face took a full two minutes to unpucker.
Oh well, I lamented, such a waste. I guess if they stay there a bit longer they may well turn into raisins. Then I spied the other forage-able resource. Vine leaves! I can make dolmades. The lawn people just happened to be there and I asked if they thought it would be OK if I picked a few of the leaves. They agreed that the owner wouldn’t even notice.
Preparing the leaves
I did some “research”, that is I looked up a few cooking websites and they said it was easy to use fresh leaves. Just make sure you pick the fresh, young ones. In early summer. Not too big and make sure they are light green. Otherwise, they warned, the leaves will be too tough and stringy. It’s late summer here but there were a few light green leaves on the vine. I duly picked 60 of the brightest, softest greenest ones.
Lamb Dolmades without the Lamb
I brought the leaves inside, washed them carefully, checked for bugs and trimmed the stems. I blanched them gently in boiling salted water, for the recommended two minutes. Then I laid them aside while I made the filling.
I have made dolmades several times before with packaged leaves. I’ve used lamb mince and they have always turned out super-tasty. Since I am trying to cut down on my meat consumption, both for my own health and the health of the planet, I decided to make a vegetarian option. I made a rich tomato and rice filling with vegan mince. It had a great consistency and while it certainly lacked the unctuous umami richness I would get from real meat, it wasn’t that bad. Nothing a bit of salt couldn’t fix.
Next came the wrapping. After some trial and error, I got the wrapping down pat, and soon I had neat rows of little olive green parcels sitting in the leaf-lined baking dish. I popped it in the oven for 40 minutes after splashing it with olive oil and half filling the tray with water as directed. Once out of the oven, I left them to cool. (Are you adding up the time and labour here??)
You were warned!
In the back of my mind I was thinking that the blanching and baking would tenderise the leaves. I was wrong. While they tasted OK (and here I mean only just OK) the leaves were in fact tough and chewy just like the recipes had warned. Even after some very diligent mastication, I was left with a wad of green fibres rolling around in my mouth. Ewww. The lack of umami meatiness didn’t help and it was all tragic disaster! (Albeit a first world disaster.)
I decided to let them cool even further and tried them again the next day. I tried! I did! I really tried! Extra salt, extra oil, extra lemon juice but nope those leaves stayed tough and stringy and the filling remained pretty darned tasteless.
There was no magical recovery for these time-wasters! I made the brutal decision to bin them immediately rather than let them fester in the back of the fridge for two weeks while I tried to convince myself to be a good citizen and eat them. With the axiom “if food waste were a country” ringing in my ears I tipped them in the bin.
Time, effort, money and high hopes dashed!
- Some things are really, really seasonal. Pick the leaves early in the season, not in late summer. In this case, age counts more than colour.
- Some things just aren’t meant to be vegetarian. Buy the lamb! The nice tasty umami lamb! Ethically raised and locally sourced of course!