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For the Love of Mezze | Stuffed Grape Leaves

Stuffed Grape Leaves | Delightful CrumbIt’s March! My goodness, this month snuck up on me. Spring is on the horizon, and life is good. To catch us up quickly, I’ve chosen one thing to say about my rather hectic month of February, which is that I have become obsessed with Michael Solomonov’s cookbook Zahav. And that is what I’m here to tell you about today.

I love this book. I love the stories Solomonov tells about his upbringing and how he arrived at his current understanding and interpretation of Israeli food, which was a gradual process, as most of our thoughtful concepts of culture tend to be. Solomonov was born in Israel, grew up mostly in Pittsburgh, moved begrudgingly back to Israel as a teenager, then returned to the US. When he visited his home country again, it was as an adult and a chef, and he saw Israel’s cuisine in an entirely new light. It isn’t one straightforward set of traditional recipes but instead an amalgamation of many different cultures’ cuisines, he explains, tied together by such values as hospitality and the ritual of sharing a meal, and by the collective experience of those living in what is still a fairly young country. This is what he strives to represent at his Philadelphia restaurant, and it comes through in the cookbook as well.

I also love the food in this book. To be specific, I love the mezze and the salads and the tahini, three things I have long loved with a great, undying passion. I use tahini with abandon and delight in big salads. And if I had my druthers, I would eat a meal of mezze every day. There are few experiences I enjoy more than eating a whole bunch of different dishes at once, the flavors melding, each bite different than the last. An array of dishes makes a meal into an experience, encouraging everyone to linger until the candles burn out, resting in the comfort of the table, while another bottle of wine is opened, signaling that the meal is far from over.

With the guidance of this cookbook, I have discovered the glories of a condiment called schug, baked perfectly puffed pita bread, cooked up a batch of halva (some of which landed in a CAKE, compliments of Ottolenghi), been won over to Solomonov’s method for making the most creamy hummus imaginable and prepared a downright stunning feast of mezze. (Thus far, most everything has worked out well for me, but I also think that Phyllis Grant offers a fair and thoughtful critique over on Food52’s Piglet competition, least I be swept away entirely with the fat salad chapter. At the least, I will definitely be purchasing The Food Lab after reading her glowing review.)

Today, I want to share with you Solomonov’s not-so-traditional recipe for stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades. What struck me about making these was the very fact that I could, with much greater ease than I had expected, followed by the reality that they were delicious. The barley gives them a wonderful chew, the spices are on point and the sweetness and zip of the pomegranate molasses takes them over the top. We ate them as part of an epic, all-Zahav spread of mezze, which I highly recommend if you have the time and inclination to tackle such a project.

Stuffed Grape Leaves with Barley & Pomegranate

Barely adapted from Michael Solomonov’s Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking

Makes 25 – 35 stuffed grape leaves

If you can find fresh grape leaves, blanch them quickly in boiling water. If not, you can find jarred grape leaves at a well-stocked Middle Eastern store. In the Bay Area, I’ve purchased them at Berkeley Bowl.

Next time, I’ll try this with a bit less pomegranate molasses. I didn’t use the entire mixture and felt the finished product could still have been a tiny bit less sweet. The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup, and I’ve given a range below, as I’m quite confident you could go down at least to 1/3 cup and get great flavor with a bit less sweetness.

1 cup barley

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 small bunch kale, stripped from the stems and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup sunflower oil (or another vegetable oil)

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

25 – 35 grape leaves

1/3 – 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses, depending on your preference for sweetness

Put the barley in a large bowl and cover with at least 3 inches of water. Let it soak overnight. Drain.

In a skillet over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the kale and half of the garlic and cook until the kale has wilted, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

In a food processor, combine the remaining garlic, cilantro, vegetable oil, turmeric, fenugreek, cumin, salt and pepper. Puree until a smooth paste forms. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and stir in the drained barley and cooked kale.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Use a large cutting board as your workstation for filling the grape leaves. For each, spread the grape leaf on the cutting board, stem pointing toward you. Trim off any part of the thick stem that extends below the leaf. Place a heaped teaspoon of the barley mixture on the bottom quarter of the leaf, right on the stem. Fold in both sides of the leaf and roll it up, as you would a burrito or spring roll. Repeat until you run out of filling. Tightly pack the rolled leaves in a baking dish.

Combine the pomegranate molasses with 1 1/2 cups of hot water and whisk to blend. Pour over the stuffed grape leaves. They should be just barely covered. You may not use all of the mixture, or you may need to add a little extra water. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the stuffed grape leaves are tender all the way through.

Serve warm or at room temperature. The grape leaves will keep for several days in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator.

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