The Olive and the Caper

Today's recipe is from a Greek cookbook called "The Olive and the Caper." It is named to honor two venerable cured delicacies in Greek cuisine.

Stuffed grape leaves are a staple of Greek cooking. The land is replete with wild vines and woolly sheep grazing peacefully, unaware that Yia Yia is eyeballing them for her next meal.

I must confess, while I like the more ubiquitous vegetarian stuffed grape leaves -- around here, usually some Middle Eastern variant -- I prefer them filled with lamb and rice, served hot, and topped with a silky avgolemeno (egg-lemon) sauce.

There are only two tricks to this recipe: preparing the grape leaves, cooking them. Not really a joke. I confess it has taken me a long time to attain even rudimentary mastery. I will attempt to pass that on with verbal illustrations.

Folding grape leaves takes practice. Most likely you will purchase these in a jar, tightly rolled and shoved inside like a ship in a bottle. Drain them, lay them out, and trim off the protruding stem as if you are conducting a delicate circumcision. Place each grape leaves on a flat surface with the lighter-colored, veinier side up, and the darker side down (this will be the outside of the rolled grape leaf.)

A grape leaf is shaped like a maple leaf, with three broad leaves. Place a heaping teaspoon or a little more in the bottom center. Fold the outer leaves in, then roll up tightly, but not so they'll burst. Use torn pieces to line the bottom of the pan.

Cooking them in one piece is another challenge. As you roll them, arrange them in concentric circles on top of the extra pieces of grape leaves, on the bottom of a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven. You can start a new layer as long as you're confident you can evenly weigh down all the stuffed grape leaves. For this I used a heavy plate, with a bowl on top of that, filled with potatoes - taking no chances of the grape leaves filling like swim trunks in a wave pool and floating to the top.

Two other tips: Before adding the dried fruit to the other ingredients, soak in Retsina or dry white wine until plumped up and drunk. And use a short grain rice like Arborio, which has a lovely toothsome texture.




(Susanna Hoffman - with variation)


8 oz. ground lamb, beef, or combination

1 cup uncooked short grain rice,

preferably Arborio

1 medium onion, finely chopped

12 dried apricots, finely diced (can

substitute currants or golden raisins)

1/4 cup Retsina or dry white wine

(to soak the fruit)

2 TBS chopped fresh dill

2 TBS chopped fresh mint

1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 tsp. fresh ground black pepper

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)

40 or more fresh or bottled grape leaves,

stems cut off

2 TBS chopped fresh dill, stems reserved


1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

3 eggs

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice


1. Combine the fruit with the wine in a small bowl and let stand for at least 1 hour, or preferably overnight.

2. Place all ingredients (except grape leaves and sauce ingredients) in a large bowl and mix thoroughly.

3. Fill, roll, and place in a pot the stuffed grape leaves as described above, and keep the layers flat. Top with more torn pieces of scrap leaves.

4. Fill the pan with water about an inch over the leaves. Weigh down the grape leaves with a heavy plate or a slightly smaller pan partially filled with water (rocks, potatoes -- you get the idea). Set the pan on the stove and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is tender, about 50-55 minutes. Taste one to make sure the rice is done.

5. As the grape leaves are cooking, start the sauce. Heat the stock in a saucepan and remove from heat as it begins to boil. Beat the eggs until frothy, whisk in the lemon juice, and then slowly add the stock, whisking vigorously. Return to the pan over low heat and cook, whisking gently, until thick, 8-10 minutes. Taste, and add salt if necessary. Keep warm.

6. When the grape leaves are cool enough to handle, carefully pour off the liquid, pressing down on the leaves slightly to extract the excess liquid, and arrange the stuffed grape leaves on a platter. Top with the avgolemono sauce.

"The Stuffed Grape Leaf and the Egg-Lemon Sauce." Catchy -- I kind of like it.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at His blog is

Published: Mon, Feb 24, 2014