Posts Tagged ‘grape leaves’

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

A Grand Mess of Greens

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I love the various vegetables that the seasons offer me, and for the most part prefer to eat what my environment is offering me fresh that day. I do freeze greens mixtures, though, so that I never run short and have them all winter. Recently I came across a forager’s description of his “56 species calzone” and it made me want to count up the number of species in the large batch of cooked seasoned greens for the freezer  that I’m working on today.

The main components: chard, dock, lambs-quarters, spinach, nettles

Seasonings and minor components: mulberry leaves, hops shoots, lettuce ( about to bolt,) dandelion,  scorzonera, salsify, sunflower, green onion, young leeks, elephant garlic, corn poppies, young grape leaves, marjoram, mint, fennel, mustard, cattail shoots, pea vines, broccoli leaves,  arugula, sow thistle, wild lettuce

Sauteed separately and added: chopped broccoli stems, grape leaves, green garlic

So, 30 species, a thoroughly respectable count for an average early summer morning,  and a potential treasure on winter days when I need to be flooded with the antioxidants of summer. In general I blanch the bulk greens in a fairly small amount of water which I later drink or make soup from, saute the chopped alliums and seasonings, then combine all and saute together for five-ten minutes or until the flavors have blended.
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The true Cretan diet, the one that nourished some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world, was based on huge numbers of wild mountainside greens. It’s said that over 300 edible greens grow on Crete, and the average citizen can recognize over a hundred, making my 30 seem limited. But be assured that if you can learn to recognize ten of your local edible weeds and know when to harvest them and how to prepare them, your health and table will improve.  I’ve been tracking the preferences of a vegetable-despising friend, and he will eat greens, sometimes even second helpings, if they don’t look like greens on the plate. An example is the horta egg cake that I make often. He will even eat plain greens if they have a sweet component and a bit of texture, and an easy way to provide this is to douse them in the Quasi-Korean Sauce that I always have in the refrigerator and put a handful of roasted peanuts on top. If you eat bread, toasted sourdough bread crumbs provide delicious crunch on greens sautéed with garlic and chile flakes.
Be aware that greens have a remarkable capacity to absorb and mute flavors, and may need more seasoning than you think. Salt seems to disappear into them, and enough seasoning may be key to getting your loved ones to eat them and even like them. So keep tasting and adjusting until the flavor is right.
If you want to learn to identify some wild greens, gather them at the right stage, and cook them well, there is no better foraging author than John Kallas.

Crazy Salad

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“‘Tis certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat…” Yeats
And so they do, sometimes crazier than others. The one shown above is one of my weirdest so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
When cooking dolmas recently I felt the need for a Cook’s Treat, and there were some nice grape leaves left over that I had no other immediate use for. I heated my little 6″ skillet over medium heat and, when hot, brushed a grape leaf generously with good olive oil on both sides and put it flat in the hot pan, pressing down a bit with a spatula to make sure the leaf cooked evenly. Flip and repeat. Put on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. If the heat is right, the leaf will cook in about 20 seconds or less per side, will be darkly browned in spots but not blackened anywhere, and will be crisp as an ultra-thin potato chip, with a light, delicate crunch and a hint of lemony-sorrel flavor. Have at least 3-4 extra leaves to get the heat right, but once the heat is adjusted, you can make and plate a serving in a couple of minutes. It is easy to do for two but would be fiddly for four. I like to oil all the leaves at once and then have nothing but the frying to concenrate on.
Why do it? Well, it’s different and it tastes good, at least if you like grape leaves and olive oil. The texture and flavor are not quite like anything else, and pleasant novel experiences delight me even when they’re minor. I can imagine a more substantial meze made by adding delicately spiced little fried meatballs to the plate. Little cubes of marinated feta would be another option.
Incidentally, the grape leaves that you use must be suitable for cooking. Please see my notes from my dolmas post on choosing grape leaves for cooking. A grape leaf that has papery unchewable fibers when raw will chew like a fried paper bag when fried.
I also tried frying a pruned tendril. The stemmy part was tough chewing. It looked charming in a rather baroque way, but probably should be considered a garnish rather than part of the Crazy Salad. That said, I ate mine.
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Unexpected Dolmas, and Notes on Grape Leaves

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The tiny dolmas that you see on the edge of the plate above were never meant to be a post; they were meant to be a sort of amuse-bouche incorporated onto the main plate. But they were so delicious that I ended up writing about them.
They are simplicity itself. For two servings, start with eight fresh grape leaves, chosen according to the notes below. You pull a splendid chunk of Mount Vikos feta out of its wrapper, or if you have a really good locally made feta, you drain a goodly chunk of it and cut slices about half an inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long, or smaller depending on the size of your grape leaves. You need eight slices. Center each slice on a grape leaf, put a large pinch of chopped dill or chopped fresh fennel on top, and roll up the dolmas. The fresh leaves are a bit stiff and you will have to coax them. Heat up a nonstick ceramic skillet, and when it’s good and hot put in about 3 tablespoons of good olive oil. After a few seconds for the oil to heat, put in the dolmas with the last fold downward, to hold it in place. Fry until browned but not blackened, flip, and brown the other side. Serve. Eat. Simple as that. I can’t help noticing that these would make a great Cook’s Treat, a meze for one, eaten standing while working on other aspects of a large meal.

Now, about catching your grape leaves. I don’t know why some are tender and tart and others are papery and  unchewable, but I do know that it’s imperative to taste a leaf from the plant before you try to use them in cooking. I have two wine grape vines, a Syrah and a merlot, that have delicious leaves even when they have been on the vine a while, and a Concord that has totally inedible leaves even when tried very young. But I have tasted wine grape leaves that were awful, so taste your own vine or the vine that you have (legal) access to. If the leaf chews up without much of a problem, you are good to go. If you are left chewing something that feels like a papery candy wrapper to the teeth, no skill on the cook’s part will overcome this and you are better off with commercial brined grape leaves.
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These are the leaves of my Concord vine, and they look perfect for stuffing, but don’t try to eat them unless you want an impaction.
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These are the leaves of my Syrah grape, and they look too deeply lobed to cook with, but they are tender and sorrel-sprightly to eat.