A Greek feast

Henri celebrates the Olympics by making dolmas

Illustration By Carey Wilson

Ever since Henri was required to take PE in junior high school, he has dreaded sports. Baseball, basketball, soccer, football—you name it, and I was pathetic. I never knew whether the other kids were laughing at me because I so lacked anything remotely resembling physical coordination or because of how I looked in my gym clothes. Probably both.

I’m still thankful to my English teacher, Mrs. Bowers, who happened to be walking by the field one afternoon and the next morning was kind enough to suggest to me, discreetly, that I need not pull my gym pants up quite so high.

A confession, though: Every four years, I love nothing more than to plant myself in front of the television and take in as much of the Summer Olympics as I can. Mind you, Henri neither roots nor cheers—for anyone or any country. Henri just loves to watch. Especially wrestling and gymnastics. In fact, Henri makes no bones whatsoever about his infatuation with hardbodies. Oh, and diving. My, oh my!

According to an August 2004 National Geographic News story, researchers have recently discovered documentation of the diets of ancient Olympians. Food historians claim that early Olympic athletes’ diets were originally cheese and fruit based and then gradually shifted over to fish and meat, including cow’s womb. Olympic wrestler Milon of Croton prepared for matches by eating 20 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of bread and drinking three pitchers of wine. After his matches, he carried around the stadium on his shoulders a 4-year-old bull, then cut it up and ate it—in a single day.

The last day of the Olympics, I bought a bottle of yianakohori (a delightfully fruity blend of xynomavro and merlot) and one of ouzo and spent a Dionysian day in the kitchen cooking up a grand Greek feast—dolmas, a butter-lettuce salad with melon and feta, eggplant moussaka, lamb with vegetables and avgolemono (a lemon-based sauce), rice pilaf and of course baklava, a multi-layered pastry thick with nuts and honey—the classic Greek national dessert. All of which Miss Marilyn and I enjoyed thoroughly as we watched the closing ceremonies.

Sometime around midnight I polished off the ouzo. The last thing I remember is putting on my Zorba the Greek soundtrack and dancing around the living room with Miss Marilyn hoisted across my shoulders—she noticeably a bit nervous.

Dolmas are classic Greek appetizers made from rice, pine nuts, and currants and wrapped in steamed grape leaves. Though a bit complicated to make, as well as time consuming, they make for a wonderful change of pace for a potluck. Dolmas instead of chips and salsa? You’ll be more popular than Milon of Croton. The following recipe makes 30.

6 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1/3 cup uncooked long- or medium-grain rice
2 tablespoons dried currants
3 tablespoons pine nuts
40 preserved grape leaves
2 tablespoons water
lemon wedges

Heat three tablespoons oil in large skillet. Add onions and cook until soft. Add rice, stirring constantly for two to three minutes (don’t let it brown). Add 1 cup water, season with salt and pepper, bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 15 more minutes (or until rice is fully cooked). In a small skillet, heat one tablespoon oil and add the pine nuts; cook until golden brown. Add to rice; stir in the currants.

Bring two quarts water to boil in a large pot. Add grape leaves and immediately turn off heat. Soak leaves for one minute, drain in sieve, and put them in cold water to cool. Separate leaves and spread them, shiny side down, on paper towels.

Layer the bottom of a two- or three-quart casserole with 10 leaves. Wrap each of the remaining leaves around about one tablespoon of the rice mixture, and then stack them side by side, seams down in the casserole, and sprinkle with two tablespoons oil and a splash of water. Heat casserole on high for about three minutes, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for another 50 minutes. Uncover and cool to room temperature. Serve stuffed dolmas on a platter garnished with lemon wedges.