One of the many ways in which I've been taking advantage of my free summer is by entertaining. I usually don't host anything too elaborate (not least because our apartment doesn't comfortably accommodate many more than 4 or 5 people), but I tend to use casual dinners as an excuse to test out new recipes and techniques.
Last week, after having a couple of friends over for dinner, I realized that my entertaining menus might make viable blogging material. I don't claim to be an expert entertainer, but I do put some thought into what I serve my guests, and every once in a while I'm left with a good idea or a successful recipe to show for my efforts.
Last week, I decided on a Middle-Eastern/Greek-inspired menu, mostly because I had been wanting to come up with a recipe for stuffed grape leaves. When I'm cooking for guests, I often opt for an ethnic cuisine, because I find it easier to tie the menu together when I have a few guidelines in terms of style and flavors. Also, the cuisines I tend to make - Indian, Mediterranean, Moroccan - are extremely delicious!
In addition to the grape leaves, I also served homemade whole wheat pita, roasted onions and zucchini, an eggplant and pepper salad with tahini dressing, and my favorite chickpea salad. I also made a cucumber-yogurt sauce and hummus. Everything was served family style, with a stack of fresh pitas on the end of the table for various forms of scooping and dipping. It was the kind of meal where you take little bites of this and that, and eat well without ever feeling stuffed or weighed down. I kept dessert simple with some biscotti and light almond cookies.
Instead of sharing recipes for the entire menu, I thought I'd share just the grape leaves, which were so tasty I decided to make another batch today. Still cruising on my millet high, I opted for that grain instead of the traditional rice. Other than that, though, these grape leaves have fairly traditional flavors: mint, dill, and feta predominate, and tart currants punctuate their sharpness. I also chose to use almonds, the first time because I was out of pine nuts, and the second time because they tasted so good on the first try. I had some blanched and slivered almonds left over from baking, but raw or toasted whole almonds would surely work, too. They add wonderful texture and a subtle richness to the stuffed leaves, which complements the tangy acidity of the cheese, lemon, and tomato. For such little bundles, these grape leaves really showcase a variety of contrasting and tasty flavors.
Although the filling for these grape leaves is a breeze to put together, making the stuffed leaves is rather time consuming. I found jarred, brined leaves at my grocery store, but these require blanching, then stuffing and rolling, and then another quick steam. I have no idea how they pack so many leaves into that little jar, but it makes for a somewhat frustrating 20 minutes when you have to pry them apart after removing them from their brine. Sure, it's worth it - but probably not for a quick dinner. This is entertaining, after all!
Hoping that the grape leaves wouldn't actually need to be cooked after stuffing, despite the directions I read in several different recipes, I tried them both steamed and not. The bad news is that steaming really does improve the texture of the stuffed leaves. The good news is that after steaming, they are really, really good. And steaming is actually a very quick process.
I feel like I should be giving a host of instructions about how to roll, blanch, fill, etc. the grape leaves, but it is a fairly intuitive process, and rather forgiving, to boot. It is important to separate the leaves after removing them from the brine, and it's also essential to blanch them, to remove some of their saltiness and make them pliable for rolling. I like to blanch the leaves 5 or so at a time, leaving them in the water for 10-15 seconds and then removing them to a baking tray covered in paper towels. Then it's just stuff, roll, steam, and enjoy.
I served these as a main part of my meal, but they would also make fantastic appetizers at a larger get-together. They also make a great and healthy breakfast or lunch, straight from the fridge. Not that I would know. The recipe below is good for about 25 stuffed grape leaves, but can be easily doubled. They go down easy, and keep well for a few days, so make plenty!
Millet and Almond Stuffed Grape Leaves
2 c. cooked millet
1/4 c. chopped almonds
2 tbs. dried currants
1 heaping tbs. each chopped mint and dill
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. oregano
1 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. tomato paste
1 tsp. warm water
juice of 1 lemon
1 shallot, finely diced
1 oz. goat or feta cheese
30-40 grape leaves
To prepare filling: Combine millet, almonds, herbs, currants, shallot, spices, oil, and lemon juice in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine tomato paste with about 1 tsp. warm water, or enough to make it the consistency of ketchup. Add tomato paste to millet mixture and stir to combine thoroughly. Crumble the cheese into the filling and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings.
To prepare grape leaves: Remove grape leaves from jar and separate, setting aside damaged or torn leaves (don't throw out). Blanch in boiling water, 5 at a time, for about 10-15 seconds. Drain on paper towels. Place leaf veiny side up, with stem end facing you. Mound a heaping spoonful of filling in center of leaf. Roll leaf by pulling bottom over filling, then folding in the sides, and then rolling to create a spring roll-like shape. Repeat with remaining filling and leaves.
To steam leaves: Lightly oil a dutch oven and cover bottom completely with a layer of unused or damaged grape leaves. Arrange stuffed leaves on top in a single layer. Add water to the pot until the stuffed leaves are half-submerged. Cover the pot and place over medium-low heat, then steam for about 15 minutes. Stuffed leaves should be tender and slightly wrinkled. Remove the stuffed grape leaves from the pot and allow to cool. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator.