Every Good Friday, our friend Richard throws my favourite party of the year: The Easter Jamboree. He and Emma started this tradition a dozen or so years ago for the waifs and strays left in London for the holiday and it has grown so much that up to 50 of us now stay in the city to join the festivities each spring. We take over a first-floor terrace restaurant in Covent Garden for rosé and steak frites, gossip and occasional scandal. What starts as lunch usually ends up in a bar somewhere. This year, 1am found us in Richard’s flat with Séan teaching our Spanish friend Alex to do the Eightsome Reel while I raided the fridge to rustle up spring onion and salmon frittata for the dozen or so merry survivors.
After such a great party, a post mortem is essential. We usually have a lunch here on Easter Sunday where newspapers are read, champagne is drunk and the various levels of wickedness displayed on Friday are dissected in near-forensic detail. Who fell of a chair? Who ran off with that cute waiter? Did anyone break a glass, a limb, a heart?
I spent Saturday in the gently soothing activity of preparing the feast for the following day - hummus and lebneh balls dipped in smoked paprika and toasted sesame seeds, platters of salami, and my first-ever dolma. I spent a happy few hours soaking and filling vine leaves. Sometimes the world - or at least the television schedulers - are kind, so I sat at my kitchen counter and rolled my vine leaves while watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As they simmered on the stove, they filled the house with their reviving and comforting lemony, spicy aroma.
After our Mediterranean canapés, we reverted to trad English for our main course: the tenderest Poll Dorset Spring Lamb from the Thoroughly Wild Meat Company which I seasoned and rubbed with butter and then simply roasted on a bed of rosemary, chopped onion and wet garlic, along with roasted asparagus from the Wye Valley and sweet, boiled Jersey Royals. For pudding, we devoured a strawberry and chocolate roulade and the heavenly Lemon Meringue Bombe from the Unconfidential Cook’s blog.
As we kissed the last of our 15 friends goodbye at 11pm, I was delighted that they’d come, thrilled they’d enjoyed themselves, but secretly excited that they’d left us with just enough lamb to fill a couple of pitas with the last scraps and some scrambled eggs and chopped mint for supper today.
Dolma In the 11 years I’ve lived in this part of London, I must have eaten enough stuffed vine leaves to stretch all the way along Green Lanes and back, from the Turkish part where they’re called dolma to the Greek end where they’re known as dolmades. But I’ve never made them. Seeing a vine press in the Turkish Food Centre pushed me over the edge from consumer to creator.
A 750g package of pickled vine leaves, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then drained, stalks cut off
125ml olive oil
2-3 onions, finely diced
50g pine nuts
250g short-grain rice
1tbsp dried mint
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tbsps lemon salt *
250ml chicken stock
1 tomato, grated
A good-sized bunch of parsley, stalks removed then finely chopped
2tbsps finely chopped, fresh dill
1 small lemon, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
*You can find tangalicious lemon salt in Mediterranean supermarkets. If you can’t get hold of any, use a teaspoon or so of ordinary salt and the juice of half a lemon.
Warm half of the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat and sauté the onions until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the pine nuts and fry until they begin to turn golden. Add the rice and fry, stirring, for about 5 minutes until the rice is well coated in the oil. Add the currants, spices, dried mint and lemon salt, stir and pour in half of the chicken stock and simmer gently until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock and simmer again, stirring quite frequently, until it is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the grated tomato, fresh herbs and a good few grinds of black pepper. Cool.
Line a large, heavy casserole with a good layer of vine leaves (check through the ones you’ve soaked. They’ll inevitably be a few that are too small or torn – use those.) and a couple of slices of lemon.
Now, let the rolling extravaganza begin. Place a leaf in front of you, vein side up and the broadest part of the leaf facing you. Put a spoonful of the mixture about 1cm up from the base of the leaf. Fold over once, then fold in the sides and roll. I was daunted by warnings of not overfilling the leaves in case they split while cooking, so mine were a little thin. A think a good, rounded tablespoon of filling would be perfect. Line the base of the casserole with a layer of stuffed vine leaves, packing them in quite tightly. Place a couple of slices of lemon on top and make your next layer. Keep rolling and layering until you’ve used up all of your leaves and rice mixture. Pour over the rest of the olive oil and about 300ml of boiling water. Put a vine leaf press or a plate on top of your dolma to stop them bobbing around in the liquid and simmer very gently, covered, for about 35-45 minutes until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Serve warm or at room temperature.