Think of grape leaves as nature’s spring roll wrapper.
I mean, the Greeks certainly did. So too did the Persians, the Turks, the Lebanese, the Egyptians, the Romanians, the Armenians, even the Vietnamese!
The otherwise unassuming grape leaf certainly has fans in high places. The Greeks say the most famous grape leaf dish, dolmades, was served on Mount Olympus to the gods themselves. Back down on earth, when Alexander the Great laid siege on Thebes, the natives apparently stretched what little meat they had left by wrapping it in grape leaves, thus birthing the dish we know today.
And yet, the source of the dish is up for debate. Indeed, the very word “dolma” is Turkish in origin, from the verb meaning “to be stuffed.” In Armenia, an annual dolma festival is held to reassert the dish’s Armenian roots. Arabian cuisine is replete with stuffed vegetables of one kind or another, so it stands to reason that they would have stuffed grape leaves, too, giving birth to what they call “wara ‘enab.”
And did you know that there’s even a Swedish version called “kaldolmar,” stuffed cabbage leaves served with boiled potatoes and lingonberry jam?
No matter the origin, I love having stuffed grape leaves in the refrigerator as a tasty antidote to afternoon hunger pangs. Truth be told, I’d always turned to canned dolmades instead of making my own. Yet I was shocked at how easy they are to make myself.
For a change, inspired by the current national obsession with transforming cauliflower into an entirely different animal (cauliflower steaks, couscous, mash, Buffalo cauliflower “wings”), I decided to stuff them with cauliflower “rice,” which I spiced Turkish-style with ground allspice and mint. The result are lighter, quicker-cooking stuffed grape leaves that will satisfy everyone, from the low-carb/Paleo devotees to (I would hope) Zeus himself!
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Fresh grape leaves are hard to find, so look for the jarred ones at your supermarket. They’re usually in the same section as the jarred olives.
CAULIFLOWER “RICE” STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (1 hour active)
Makes 30 stuffed grape leaves
About 30 jarred grape leaves
1 small head of cauliflower, stem and leaves removed, cut into large florets (about 3 cups of florets)
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp. pine nuts
1 tsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. currants
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 large (preferably Meyer) lemons, sliced 1/4 inch thick
3/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. sugar
Drain the grape leaves, then carefully unroll and separate them in large bowl. Cover with lots of hot water and soak for 20 minutes to remove excess salt. Drain, rinse in fresh cool water, then dry in layers on paper towels. Set aside.
Meanwhile, place the cauliflower florets in a food processor and pulse about 20 times, or until they are reduced to a fluffy rice-like texture. You’ll need about 2 cups packed of this rice, so add florets if needed. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and saute until softening and just starting to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the pine nuts and saute until golden brown, another 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until fragrant, another 2 minutes. Add the cauliflower, currants and mint, then season with salt and pepper. Mix well and remove from heat.
To roll the grape leaves, one at a time set each leaf on the counter, vein side up with stem end closest to you. Place about 1 tablespoon of the filling in the center of the leaf, near the stem end. Roll upward from the stem end once, then fold in the left and right sides, then continue rolling upward, like a little cigar. Keep the roll snug, but not too tight. Squeeze gently in the palm of your hand, then set aside and repeat with remaining leaves.
In a large skillet over medium-low heat, line the bottom with the lemon slices. Arrange the rolled grape leaves over the lemon slices, tucking them tightly against each other so they don’t unfurl while cooking. If needed, you can wedge torn grape leaves or even more pieces of lemon between the stuffed grape leaves to keep them snug.
In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, the water and sugar. Pour over the leaves. Cover the skillet then simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Allow the stuffed grape leaves to cool slightly in the pan before serving.
Nutrition information per stuffed grape leaf: 30 calories; 20 calories from fat (67 percent of total calories); 2 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 1 g protein; 150 mg sodium.