Sunday, November 14, 2004

Byzantine Dolmathes and Spanakapita--Say What?

(Stuffed Grape Leaves and Spinach Pie)

My Greek cooking (see my post on cooking Moussaka without the Mouse or the Moose below) last weekend left us wanting more Greek food again this weekend, but I wasn’t about to take the risk of dining out to get it. I’d have to cook it myself again, and I did.

On tonight’s menu are two Greek standards—Stuffed Grape Leaves and a big ole’ slice of Spinach Pie. I must admit that I’ve only had each dish a few times in the past and didn’t really have any idea what was involved in cooking them. After a little research on the Internet, I came up with several ideas based on these recipes for the Stuffed Grape Leaves and Spinach Pie.

It’s not rocket science, but each dish does require a good deal of work. The results were definitely worth it. I’m going to list the ingredients I used for each dish separately, but address the order of preparation and cooking together.

First, for the Stuffed Grape Leaves:

1 Jar grape leaves in brine (you only need 20 or so leaves)

1/8 pound ground beef
1/8 pound ground lamb
1/4 cup long grain rice
4 oz can tomato sauce
2 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 8 oz can of beef or chicken broth
1 bunch green onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1/4cup currants (small resins)
1/8 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup parsley chopped (reserve the stems)
1/4 cup mint, chopped
1/4 cup red or port wine
1/8 TSP cinnamon
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste

Avgolemono sauce:

Juice of one small lemon, strained of seeds
One egg

And for the Spinach Pie:

Two bunches fresh spinach (about 2 pounds)
1 medium onion, sliced thin
1 small bunch green onions, diced
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 eggs
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 package frozen puff pastry dough
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil

Putting it all together:

In order to get both dishes prepared in less time than the three hours it took me and have them both hot on the plate at the same time, there are certain things that must be done in the correct order. (The preparation didn’t really take three hours of continuous work--I was distracted watching the end of the Georgia/Auburn football game on TV along with part of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” while I was doing my prep.)

First, open the jar of grape leaves and carefully remove them, reserving the brine. The leaves are rolled tightly like a big fat green cigar and must be unrolled carefully to avoid tearing them. Remove 20 leaves, roll up the balance, and place them back in the jar along with the brine for use another day. Top off the brine with fresh water to cover the ends of all of the leaves.

Redneck Tip: Twelve leaves need to be large and nearly perfect. The other eight leaves can be smaller and less than perfect because they only will be used to line the pan during cooking and for garnish on the plate.

Soak the grape leaves in fresh cold water for at least one hour. Change the water a few times in order to completely rinse the brine away.

While the grape leaves are soaking, rinse your spinach bunches under the sink faucet. Tear off the larger stems and place the rinsed leaves in a bowl of cold water. Again, change the water several times to remove all the dirt.

Remove the frozen puff pastry from the freezer, open the package and thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes covering with a damp dish towel.

Redneck Tip: Use a clean dish towel guys, not the one you wiped your hands on after cleaning a mess of fish yesterday.

While your greens are swimming and your dough is thawing, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium low heat. Slowly sauté your diced onions until they are clear, then add one bunch of the diced green onions and two cloves of diced garlic. Don’t burn your garlic.

Next add the ground beef and lamb to the skillet and brown, stirring occasionally. Add the rice, the tomato sauce, some of the broth, the wine, the cinnamon, the parsley, the currants, the pine nuts, the mint, and stir it all up. Cover and simmer until the rice is done. Add some more stock or some water (I used both) to keep things moist until the rice cooks tender and all of the water is absorbed.

While the meat stuffing is cooking, in another large skillet, heat two table spoons of olive oil over medium low heat and sauté the thinly sliced onions, another bunch of chopped green onions, and garlic. Drain the spinach greens in a colander, and then pile the spinach greens and parsley on top of the onions and cover. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes to wilt the spinach, stirring occasionally.

In a medium mixing bowl, lightly beat two eggs, then add the ricotta and feta cheese. Mix it all together with a spoon to blend. Once the spinach/onion mix is wilted, allow it to cool slightly, then add it to the egg cheese mixture and fold together.

Your puff pastry dough should be thawed by now. Carefully unfold the sheets and place one sheet in a 9”x9” greased dish. Spoon the spinach cheese mixture into the middle and fold the corners up and over the top. Add the second pastry sheet, rotated 45 degrees, over the top and carefully tuck the corners and edges down and under the pie. Brush the top with olive oil. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and cover the pie with a damp dishtowel.

By now the meat stuffing should be done. Test the rice again, turn off the heat and place the mixture aside in a bowl to cool. Scrape the skillet pretty clean because you’re going to cook the stuffed leaves in it. Also hang in there with me, folks, we’re heading down the stretch now. Pour yourself another glass of wine and relax a minute while the meat mixture cools.

Once the meat mix has cooled enough to handle, lay out your rinsed grape leaves and pick the 12 best ones. Put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet and lay out four of the irregular grape leaves in the bottom. Place a few dozen large parsley stems in a grid over the grape leaves to keep the stuffed leaves from sticking.

Carefully trim the woody stem off of each leaf. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture in the center of each leaf, fold the left and right sides over, then fold the bottom of the leaf away from you and roll the whole thing up. Place the rolls in the skillet in a tight cluster, then cover with the other four grape leaves and place a plate or saucer on top to keep them from unrolling while cooking. Add a half cup of water and enough stock to cover the rolls about half way up.

Bring the stuffed leaves to a low boil in the skillet and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.

Place the Spinach pie in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes.

While everything is cooking, make the avgolemono by beating one egg for 3 to five minutes until light yellow in color and thickened. In a small boiler, combine the beaten egg and the juice of one lemon and stir as you warm on low heat. Keep warm on low.

Put your plates (hopefully oven proof) in the oven briefly to warm them up.

Plating it all up:

When the pie is golden brown, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool on a cooling rack. Turn off the heat to the stuffed leaves and remove the weight. Scoop 1/2 cup of clean (no stems or chunks) broth out of the skillet and add to the egg/lemon sauce and stir well.

Place the warmed plates on chargers, lay a couple of the flat grape leaves on a section of each plate, and lay out six stuffed leaves on top. Slice the Spinach pie and add a piece to each plate. Drizzle the egg/lemon sauce over the grape leaves, pour a couple glasses of wine, and serve. Give yourself a nice round of applause.

There should be enough pie to serve four to six people and by offering three stuffed leaves per person, this is definitely a meal for four or makes a nice leftover for lunch the next day. You can reheat the stuffed leaves or serve at room temperature.

Enjoy Ya’ll,

The Redneck Gourmet

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