Stuffed Vine Leaves with Tzatziki

Mine is a typical postage stamp London garden with lousy soil depleted by ivy grown to hide the fence and block out the neighbours. Three things flourish, jasmine, honeysuckle and a vine, other things are grown in big pots. The vine, now 20-odd years old, produces small sweet green grapes but in late May, June or July, depending on the weather, prodigious amounts of leaves. It gives me huge satisfaction to cook with them, wrapping them round quail and red mullet to roast in the oven, but mostly I make dolmades. I love those plump, dark green bundles and make them all year round with preserved vine leaves (widely available preserved in brine or dried, in cans) but particularly like making them with my own vine leaves. I serve them at the drop of a hat, with drinks or as a starter with home-made tzatziki, I take them on pic-nics and make them to assuage hunger when the barbecue isn’t ready. I love them hot from the oven with a chunky tomato sauce, cool Greek yoghurt and new potatoes fried in olive oil with lemon juice. I recently made a batch for my son Zach’s birthday who has loved them since he was a small boy.

Everyone is always hugely impressed by home made stuffed vine leaves but they require no cooking skills whatsoever and anyone who has ever rolled a cigarette with a modicum of success can make them. Once you get the hang of it, and it’s quite addictive, you’ll be begging leaves from friends with vines. Stuffed vine leaves feature in most cuisines where vines flourish but are particularly familiar in Greece. I learnt to make them from Claudia Roden’s seminal A Book of Middle Eastern Food but soon went off piste, as it were, using minced chicken instead of lamb and coriander instead of flat leaf parsley, making do with dried mint instead of fresh, and I’ve never had a failure. It really doesn’t matter which soft herbs you use, or in what ratio, because home made stuffed vine leaves are always going to taste far superior to anything you can buy. I usually go to town with the herbs if I am making them without meat, and like the texture and extra interest of toasted pine kernels and raisins, but dried apricots or figs with walnuts or almonds can be very special

Mint, flat leaf parsley, dill and marjoram or oregano, and basil are all suitable, and spices such as saffron and cinnamon, for a middle eastern note, and marjoram or oregano with mint for Greek, are equally delicious. You can use any rice you like (despite what anyone might tell you) but it is usually used raw, soaked first in boiling water to soften, swelling in the water or stock poured over the closely packed bundles before they are covered and baked in the oven. Many recipes tell you to weigh them down to stop unfurling but I find a snugly tucked sheet of foil punched with a few air holes works perfectly. The most important point is to pack them with the end of the vine leaf underneath.  I sometimes get fancy and post slivers of garlic between the dolmades and lay them over sliced tomato but it’s simpler to inject extra flavour with stock rather than the more usual water.

This mix is based on a Bulgarian recipe and quite meaty – pork and beef with paprika, onion and carrot – quickly stir-fried with the rice so everything is lightly cooked before the rolling begins. To be authentic, sarma is flavoured with chubritza, the Bulgarian herb that gives a distinctive flavour to many local dishes. I made do with herbes de Provence (it includes summer savoury, the closest chubritza equivalent) plus plenty of fresh parsley and mint.

So, prepare to be impressed: the essential long, slow cooking results in tender, moist morsels that leave you wanting more. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature; chilled from the fridge is not recommended.

Serves 4-8

Prep: 45 min

Cook: 45 min

40 fresh vine leaves or

250g brine-preserved leaves

6 spring onions

1 medium carrot

2 tbsp olive oil

300g minced pork

300g minced beef or veal

50g bunch flat leaf parsley

1 dsp herbes de Provence or chubritza

1 ½ (half) tsp paprika

200g basmati rice

1 chicken stock cube

about 20 flourishing mint leaves

for the tzatziki:

1 clove garlic, preferably new season

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp olive oil

300g sheeps yoghurt

2 Lebanese/small cucumbers

2 tbsp chopped dill

   Soak fresh vine leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes, follow packet instructions on preserved leaves. Drain. Trim and finely slice the spring onions, scrape and grate the carrot. Finely chop the parsley stalks. Heat the oil in a spacious frying pan and stir-fry the onion, carrot and parsley stalks for a couple of minutes before adding the meat. Brown thoroughly then add herbes de Provence and paprika. Stir-fry briefly then add the washed rice. Season generously with salt and pepper. Dissolve the stock cube in 600ml boiling water. Add 250ml stock and simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes until moist rather than wet. Chop parsley and mint and stir into the mix. Tip into a mixing bowl and spread out to cool. There is plenty of stuffing for at least 32 sarmi but work in batches, laying out a few leaves, smooth side down, on a work surface. Place a scoop of filling – how much depends on leaf size  – at the base. Fold the base ‘wings’ up over the filling, then the side ‘wings’ to the middle and carry on rolling upwards, tucking the sides of the leaf as you go, ensuring the package is secure. Make two layers, the join underneath, packing snugly in a lidded sauté pan. Add remaining hot stock. Cover with excess/damaged leaves, make airtight foil then add the lid. Simmer gently for 30 minutes.  Serve hot from the pan or allow to cool before arranging attractively on a platter.

To make the tzatziki, peel and crush the garlic with a pinch of salt. Beat into the yoghurt with the lemon juice and olive oil. Peel the cucumber, halve lengthways, use a teaspoon to scrape out the seeds. Slice into chunky half moons and stir into the yoghurt with the dill.