Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Grape Leaves of Wrath: October Food Club

...or What to Do When You Get the Dolma Doldrums

Grape leaves and I do not get along. I am hopeful that with a lot of hard work, and possibly some help from a counselor, we will be able to mend our relationship. But things are pretty rocky right now.

Some background:

My mom and I recently started an intergenerational cooking club. We hosted the first real meeting at her house last night. It was a purring success—we’re working our way up to a roar. We stuffed and rolled grape leaves. To tide over the (too?) many cooks while the leaves cooked, we had quasi-Moroccan lamb stew and mezzes. For dessert, we had cardamom and cinnamon tea and halva bought from the excellent Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria.

(Multi-culti boobs that we are, my mom and I were unaware that we were coincidentally planning a Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern feast on the first day of Ramadan. We didn’t eat until after sundown, though, so I suppose we were marginally OK.)

We used several recipes for fillings, culled from online sources. Before the rest of the clubgoers arrived, we laid out grape leaves, white rice (soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, but otherwise raw), ground lamb (also raw), scallions, pine nuts, almonds, mint, parsley, chives, dates, apricots, onions, and lemons. My mom and I had to fight for the lamb—we tried four grocery stores, and in the end we had to settle for lamb sausage with feta and pine nuts, cut from its casings. We also planned to make sweet stuffed grape leaves featuring chevre and fresh figs. Alas, fresh figs were similarly hard to find (could it have been a Ramadan/Rosh Hashanna run on relevant ingredients?), so we settled for supplying a variety of dried fruits. Let the food clubbers do the mixing and matching themselves, I say.

And they did. Dramatic readings of the directions guided us through the first few leaves, and soon everyone got the hang of the wrapping. Except me. At the time, I thought I was doing OK. But when the leaves were cooked, mine became oddly bloated and misshapen. Pine nuts fled from my dolmas like rats from a sinking ship.

We steamed one batch and baked another, using these directions. The consensus was that the baked leaves were slightly better. Everyone agreed that the canned stuffed grape leaves we'd bought for comparison and dissection were put to shame. Ours were a different beast altogether--not at all mushy or vinegar-y. The chevre, despite being somewhat unconventional, was a hit.

And in the end, it mattered little that my final products were so ugly that only a mother could love them. After all, it was intergenerational cooking club, so my mom was right there.

Watch for more cooking club blogging in the future, with action photos from the more dramatic dishes we prepare/consume. If you’re in the DC area and want to join, drop me an email.


mzn said...

I've had similar struggles with these pesky leaves and finally abandoned all ambitions of ever stuffing them again.

I don't know about Ramadan, but I've never heard of a Rosh Hashanah fig tradition. We do eat pomegranates and apples, though.

Pam said...

I am so glad that you recogized my superior leaf rolling abilities...

Barbara said...

I just read your comments on my blog about the grape leaves. Thanks! I love to make them. And don't worry about how they look, it's more important that they taste good!

dcfoodblog said...

Inspired by a favorite neighborhood Middle Eastern restaurant of my youth, I have made Dolma about 15 times. Of those, i think it came out attractive AND tast maybe a third of the time. The right comination of patience, dexterity, good grape leaves, and filling that works with you is sometimes hard to come by. Yea to Barbara's comments about taste being more important to the look. That eases my mind. -J