San Francisco was a whirlwind. Actually, to be more accurate I should probably say it was a fog. Anyway, it was a little crazy busy, so let’s set it aside for a moment to address these amazing stuffed grape leaves instead.
The first time I ever made stuffed grape leaves it was summer and I was out on an island. Doesn’t that just sound exciting and exotic? Unfortunately, it was an island in the Boston harbor, not off the coast of Greece or anything. But actually, apart from that little fact, the whole experience definitely tended toward the exotic side. I was there for an art encampment that a good friend of mine curates each year. In an homage to the Homestead Act, groups of artists “stake a claim” on pieces the island for 5 days and “improve” it by creating installations or performances using only what they can carry on their backs or find on the island. The whole encampment is open to the public for exploration and interaction. The installations range from a Museum of Island Artifacts (my favorite artifact was the “petrified jellyfish,” which looked suspiciously like sea glass), to an island gamelan, to a trans harbor tin can telephone.
Joel and I were there to be the practical people (translation: make sure that the artists survived camping on an island for 5 days). This also translated into being the occasional camp cook. (The first night, on super short notice, we managed to whip up grilled pizzas for 30 over an open fire with a grate. It was kind of awesome.) The last night of the encampment we iron-cheffed, in a kind of grand experiment to see what we could create out of everyone’s leftovers and what we could forage. This is how I wound up stuffing some grape leaves – also some kelp, which I’ll have you know is very, very rubbery – with bruised avocado, sun dried tomatoes, and some very near the borderline of too old goat cheese. They were actually pretty good. But, they didn’t inspire me to make grape leaves again, until now.
I generally like stuffed grape leaves. Joel, on the other hand, turns out to have an active dislike of them. Had a dislike, I should say. I told him I was going to test a stuffed grape leaves recipe from Margy at hidethecheese, to which he responded with so very little enthusiasm that I took it as a challenge. I would make delicious stuffed grape leaves that he would like. Your standard stuffed grape leaves are pretty monochromatic, not a lot of variation or flavor stuffed into that cute little package. So, I decided I would make a filling bursting with both. We had picked a whole bunch of fresh herbs up at the farm while strawberry picking, and the perky, jagged mint leaves were calling to me, so I decided to work from there. What popped into my mind – ours not to wonder why such things pop in there, they just do and I don’t question too much – was a dish I had a loooong time ago, a tuna steak with a tangy mint, olive, raisin topping. It was a startling combination, both in that it was unexpected and it was knock your socks off (which you shouldn’t be wearing in this heat anyway) good.
Your standard stuffed grape leaves include rice and some lemon juice (I think!), and I kept those as the foundation for the filling. But, I threw in some lemon zest to allow for its delicate summery fragrance to mingle with the mint – like a minty lemonade, yum. Finally, to add some creaminess (not to mention protein) but keep with the tang of the lemon and olives, I stirred in some goat cheese.
The filling is so good itself, you could forgo the wrapping in grape leaves, if you didn’t feel like futsing. Just stir in some peas and chopped celery and have it as a cold salad. Or wrap it in a tortilla wrap instead (significantly less healthy than eating a leaf, but I bet you’d survive it)! However, it is really awesome in the grape leaves, and they make wonderfully perfect little finger food on a hot day for an appetizer or snack, or even lunch. You could serve them chilled, or cook them a couple of minutes per side on a grill to give them a little charred flavor. And, if you make them, someone who formerly disliked stuffed grape leaves just may decide that you are a genius.
Chevre stuffed grape leaves with mint, olives, and raisins (makes about 20)
- 20 or so grape leaves, jarred or fresh (you can usually find them in the same spot as the jarred olives)
- about 2 cups cooked rice
- about 8 oz, or a bit more, chevre (or other creamy goat cheese)
- a big squirt of lemon juice (1 tsp.)
- 1-2 tsp. lemon zest
- a few Tbs. (2 or 3, or more if you like) chopped fresh mint
- a few Tbs. chopped olives
- about ½ cup raisins
- salt and pepper
- First prepare the grape leaves. If they’re in a jar they’ll have instructions to follow, which generally involve rinsing, blanching in boiling water, and drying. If they’re fresh, bring a pot of water to a boil, put in the leaves one at a time until they’re all in, then turn off the heat and let them stand for about 8 minutes. Pour them into a colander and douse them with cold water to stop the cooking. Lay them out on towels and press them with another towel to dry (yes, this may briefly take over all the surface space of your kitchen), then allow them to sit and dry until you’re ready to use them.
- To make the filling, stir the ingredients from the rice through the raisins together in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. To assemble, lay one gape leaf at a time flat on a work surface. Place a good spoonful (a Tbs. or so) of the filling on the leaf towards the bottom. Fold the bottom up, fold one side over, fold the top down, and then roll it up in the remaining side, into a little bundle. I think of it as kind of like wrapping a miniature burrito. Place the rolled leaf tucked sides down on a serving dish, and repeat with the rest of the leaves until the filling is used up. Chill until you’re ready to serve them. Mine didn’t turn out particularly beautiful, but that didn’t even matter because we ate them up so darn fast!