- What’s On
What plant can match the bounty of the vine? For thousands of years man has enjoyed the succelence of the grape, the headiness of its wines, its capacity to heal. But the fruit is not its only gift. Its lush green leaves, which offer dappled shelter from the summer sun, also create the perfect wrapping, bringing their delicate, delectable tang to the simplest foods.
Travelling through the Turkish countryside in summer, one sees everywhere the lush, fresh green foliage of vines climbing over electricity poles, balconies and terraces, and shading shop fronts, bus stops and the courtyards of mosques. Sometimes a single stem winds its way up and over an entire row of neighbouring shops; narrow streets are cool, shady passages domed with trailing greenery that turns to shades of gold and copper as autumn arrives. Women gather to gossip under trellises beside their houses, while in front of the teahouses men sip their tea in leafy shade. Given a square inch of soil, the city taxi driver will extend this tradition and plant his own vine to provide shade as he waits for custom.
The vine grows with remarkable speed in summer. Starting as a cutting, it soon produces a bud on the stem from which the first tender young leaves quickly develop, their distinctive serrated edges dividing into five or seven points.
Turkey hoards a huge collection of wild, semi-wild and cultivated vines. In gardens and vineyards, the cultivated vine, Vitis vinifera, is grafted for its fruit, giving us sweet grapes and varieties for sultanas, raisins and currants. But for public places, the wild varieties are preferred, perhaps because they need little care, thrive well in all conditions and are excellent providers of shade. Valleys and riverbanks abound with Vitis orientalis, the wild vine, which produces a highly acidic fruit known in Turkey as koruk. Inedible raw, it is widely used in cooking as a substitute for lemon or sour pomegranate juice. A sherbet made from the wild grape, rather like lemonade, makes a thirst-quenching summer drink.
Making vine leaf dolma is wrongly believed to be very fiddly. It is no more fiddly than making mayonnaise or an apple pie. Yes, wrapping each morsel seems tricky, but after the first ones you get used to it and it becomes rather fun. In the days of large households, with no shortage of hands to help, tiny dolmas would be made, so small you could get three on a spoon. Nowadays it is acceptable for a meat dolma to be the size of a thumb and slightly plump. Five or six make a portion. The quantities given here will make approximately thirty, so take your time and enjoy the process.
Whether you use fresh or preserved leaves, choose the finest and reject any that are tough. If using fresh leaves, plunge them in boiling water for one minute, just until they turn from bright to olive green and are limp enough for wrapping. If using preserved leaves, all the salt should be removed by pouring boiling water over them and leaving them to soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Either way, now rinse the leaves under cold running water and set aside to drain in a colander while preparing the filling.
This exquisite dish, a main course, is served with creamy natural yoghurt spooned generously over the dolmas.
Etli Yaprak Dolması (Stuffed Vine Leaves)
125g fresh or preserved vine leaves. Filling: 1 medium onion; 1 ripe tomato (or 2 teaspoons tomato paste); 250g minced meat (preferably mutton); 1 tablespoon butter; 2 tablespoons rice (rinsed); Salt and pepper; Juice of 1/2 lemon; Natural yoghurt to serve.
1 Prepare the leaves with boiling water as above, and drain. Peel and chop the onion finely and the tomato roughly and transfer to a bowl. Add the meat, butter, rice, salt and pepper and mix well. Pour in half a glass of cold water and blend until smooth. The addition of water is important for a soft, juicy texture.
2 Spread each leaf on a plate, downy side up, with the stem end towards you. Discard the stem. Place a spoonful of filling at the base of the leaf and fold the sides of the leaf over it. Then enclose the filling completely by rolling up the leaf.
3 Arrange the wrapped dolmas snugly in layers in a shallow pan until you have finished the filling. If the meat is lean, dot the top with extra butter. Place a heatproof plate on top to prevent them unravelling. Add the lemon juice and half a glass of hot water to the pan and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or so, until the rice grains are soft and have expanded. If all the water is absorbed in cooking, add a little extra hot water. When serving, there should be enough sauce for mopping up with bread.
4 Serve warm with yoghurt and oven-fresh bread.
Other recipes in this issue:
Zeytinyağli Yalancı Dolma (Stuffed Vine Leaves in Olive Oil)
Asma Yaprağinda Sardalya (Grilled Sardines Wrapped in Vine Leaves)
Hiyar Turşusu (Cucumber Pickle)
Karma (Tabbouleh with Fresh Vine Leaves)
Otlu Peynir (Dill Cheese Wrapped in Vine Leaves)
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