Monday 13 April 2009

Happy, happy Easter

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
50g currants
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.


  1. such a lovely post..makes me completely envious of your life (and artistry in the kitchen...i want to come round for the leftovers!). Keep those posts coming-I love seeing what you're up to


  2. Marty - How LOVELY to wake up and see your message! Hope all is well with you lot, and I promise we'll fete you in extravagant style (leftovers - pah!) if you ever get back to London.


  3. I love dolma and have never thought to make them myself. Thank you!

  4. Hi Catherine - Have a go, it's fun. Let the good vines roll...

  5. Lovely blossom from your tree. I remember the tablecloth bought in Carcassone at that wonderful fabric shop with the bolts of cloth.
    Elegant table, convivial story

  6. What a heartwarming, charitable affair. Not to mention a load of fun. Oh and what a great movie you watched while rolling the dolmas. So many funny lines; you sound like you really got in the swing of things.

    Perhaps I need to revisit dolmas; I wasn't too keen on them last time; not a fan of vine leaves really. But the filling does sound good. What did catch my eye were the (we say labneh) balls. I have a mediterranean course beginning next week and I need extra ideas for the first class. I will add these to the menu.
    Glad you had a happy easter Debora.

  7. Wendy, I do indeed remember that lovely shop. I also remember that the lengths of fabric I bought tipped me over the edge for my baggage allowance so that I might as well have draped the table in gold for how much it cost me to bring it home. I still love it though!

    Mariana, It was the PERFECT movie for the rolling of dolma(des). If there's a culture more obsessed with food and feasting than the Greeks, I don't know what it is.

    If you don't like vine leaves, you could also use this filling in tender young cabbage leaves, lightly blanched first. I think that would be good, particularly if you browned off a little minced lamb when you do the onions and added that to the mixture?

    Are you teaching a cooking class? How exciting.

  8. What a wonderfully decadent sounding Easter celebration. Your descriptions and the luscious photography just make me want to hit the kitchen.

  9. Fiona, I hope you give these a try - they're fun to make. And I hope you and yours had a wonderful Easter too.

    Love, Dx

  10. What a joyous and funfilled, tasty life you lead! SO yummy sounding. I hate to admit it, but I even buy dolmas in the can - a secret, guilty pleasure but haven't had the guts to ever make them myself!

  11. Hello Lady P, I really believe in celebrating the big occasions (sometimes this might include finding the perfect pair of shoes). I PROMISE it doesn't take guts to make your own dolma - just a bit of time, and it's very relaxing. I was speaking to someone today who makes dolma using wild garlic leaves instead of vine leaves and that sounded sooo good I might have to try it soon.

  12. And did you know that the taxis in Crete are known as dolmas..since the riders are all jammed inside like little grains of something delicious? I'm an Easter orphan myself and the thought of a huge hoedown for other orphans is inspired! Kudos to you all and save the last lick for me.
    Lanky Yankee

  13. No,LY, I didn't, but what a fabulous image! If you're ever in London at Easter, you know where to come...DX

  14. what a fantastic spread! dolmas are certainly underappreciated - glad to see them here. thanks for the comment on my blog... i look forward to popping over here to check things out!



  15. What a wonderful celebration! I have never made dolmas either, but you certainly make it seem very accessible! I don't run across a lot of them in Los Angeles (though I know I can find them at my favorite Greek restaurant) so maybe home preparation is the answer. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  16. Squirrelbread - Thanks for visiting - always lovely to have another Le Creuset addict on board!

    Apples and Butter - I do hope you enjoy them if you try them. I can't wait to make another batch.

  17. I LOVED that you watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding while making Dolma! My favourite line is when the mother asks that handsome man from Sex And The City: "You hungry?" And then, not listening when he says he isn't, says "Ok, I mek you something..." My life, that is!

    Wickedness + scandal + your food - sounds like very happy Easter!

  18. Hello Maria,

    I know, how lucky! There I was, gently hungover from the day before, with a mountain of vine leaves in front of me, so I flipped on the television and there it was - a gift from the benevolent foodie gods. Coming from a more reserved, Northern European culture I have a real weakness for those exuberant, Southern European films of family life. My favourite line? Aunt Voula, about Ian Miller, 'What do you mean, he don't eat no meat?...Oh, that's ok, I make lamb.'



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