Dolmades, Deconstructed (Mediterranean Rice Casserole)

Back when I was an undergraduate at the University of Windsor, my first boyfriend and I (hiya, Mark! How’s tricks?) would regularly venture across the Ambassador bridge to the Greektown in Detroit (quite literally, a stone’s throw away).  That’s where I first tasted saganaki–kefalotyri cheese (like an aristocratic feta) doused in brandy and set aflame in the pan, right by your table, to raucous chants of “OPA!” and clapping from anyone in the vicinity.  The semi-melted cheese, crispy on the outsideand soft on the inside, was chewy, melty, oily, salty (basically any adjective ending in “-y”) and I absolutely adored it plonked on big, cushy pieces of Greek bread.

When the HH and I got together, we lived near the Greek area of Toronto and regularly indulged in our fair share of saganaki as well. Then I was diagnosed with IBS and changed my diet dramatically. Basically, I abandoned saganaki along with the rest of the restaurant’s menu–it was all Greek to me (or, at least, to my digestive system).

But there was one item in which I could still indulge, and still eat with gusto and impunity: dolmades.    

Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’re probably familiar with these bite-sized stuffed grape leaves.  Like my mother’s cabbage rolls of yore, the dolmades use smaller, softer grape leaves and roll them around a log of rice filling.  And while they are most often served with ground meat, they can be found in vegetarian versions as well, which I enjoy immensely.

I’ve always dreamt of making my own, home-made, dolmades. It’s a shame, then, that I’m just basically too lazy to do so.  Who wants to spend 3 hours of prepping and rolling just so the HH and I can devour them in 10 minutes?  And that’s where Deconstruction came in.

In university, I “studied” a literary theory called Deconstruction, which supposedly demonstrated how language has no inherent meaning, and words are just representations of our preconceived, culturally determined notions (the approach was characterized, primarily, by the generous use of parentheses, dashes and slashes in their writing.) 

Well, I hated Deconstruction. In fact, if someone had (de)constructed Deconstruction and left it to fade into oblivion in its little de/con(structed) sentence frag(me)nts, I would not have minded one bit. I recall sitting round seminar tables during my M.A. degree and squirming as I listened to the other students pontificate about Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and a non-linear group of other the(or)ists.  I kept thinking, “What the heck are these people talking about?! This makes no sense to me.”  (Later, after years of psychological trauma believing I was a numbskulled cretin, I discovered that none of them actually knew what they were talking about, either; they were just better at tossing around all that postmodern, poststructuralist, etymological, phenomenological mumbo-jumbo). 

My favorite use of this approach was the (now famous) re-structuring of the word “therapist” as “(the)rapist,” supposedly exposing our culturally-specific, misogynistic, subtext of the word. But I think the theory reached its all-time apex of absurdity in the form of a book we were asked to study as PhD students, in which the author filled individual (separate, unbound) pages with random words, piled the pages into a box like a set of stationery, then asked the students to dump the contents of the box onto a large table, shuffle the pages, and critique the results. I don’t remember any of the “re-visioning” of the text we came up with, but I am fairly certain that many a PhD student who’d “read” that book had a good, long supply of birdcage liners for many years to follow.

And so, in an ironic return to the reviled principles of Deconstruction, I decided to focus my attention not on the hidden meanings in the structure of words, but in the hidden flavors in the structure of grape leaves. The resultant Mediterranean Rice Casserole is an unconventional, unstructured mixture of brown rice, chopped collards (which stand in for grape leaves here) and spices reminiscent of the original dish.  It both is/and is not an accurate rendition of dolmades, and your interpretation of its flavor shifts constantly, depending on the particular arrangement–never the same twice–of individual elements in each specific bite.

The flavors will remind you of a long-ago meal in a Greek restaurant.  At the same time, the structure of the dish will remind you of a child’s kaleidoscope, ever shifting as you peer into the tube. Is there any way to interpret a consistent meaning for this dish?  Is there any signficance to the particular arrangement of fragmented colors in the casserole?  Can we extract some symbolic, gender-specific and pre-existing cultural stereotype from this dish?

Naw. So let’s just forget about all that theory, get ready to eat, and heartily par(take) of this de/lec(table) meal.

OPA!

Mum, you’re really not making any sense here. . . but can we deconstruct the leftovers?” 

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Comments

  1. Haha, your little shout-out to your ex-boyfriend made me chuckle ;0)

    I LOVE Greek-inspired meals, and that casserole sounds incredible!!

  2. Ahhhh deconstruction. What a wonderful literary theory that is. I managed to avoid it through most (but sadly not all) of my history and english lit degree.

    But a deconstructed food dish. That’s a whole other story. And Ricki, yours looks glorious. I’m a dolmades fan, but would never make them. So this suits me right down to the ground.

  3. I’m a sucker for greek food! But I always find it’s not vegan friendly. This recipe sounds delicious!

  4. VeggieGirl,
    Glad it appeals! And I do think it’s more Greek-”inspired” than authentically “Greek,” though still tasty!

    kathryn,
    You have my sympathies re: Deconstruction. (Perhaps you could explain it to me. . .?). The casserole, on the other hand, makes an easy meal!

    Romina,
    I think dolmades must be one of the only non-meat-based dishes in most Greek restaurants (well, maybe except for hummus). Glad this one appeals!

  5. I am so excited that you posted this recipe. I am literally ready to make this right now…even though it’s breakfast time.

    I have a nice grapes leaves story to share with you. Recently I had the best lentil soup of my life at a small cafe near my house. I asked if there was any way I could find out how to make it and this lovely man in his seventies came out of the kitchen. He spent over thirty minutes explaining it to me in detail and I just soaked it in. He was such a sweetheart about it, he even sent out three delicious grape leaves to thank me for my inquiry. They were the best grape leaves I have ever had. I had a big smile on my face all day long after that. I hope he did, too.

  6. Your De-con (isn’t that some sort of rat poison?) post gave me a real yuk! OPA indeed.

    Great idea to forego the grape leaves and just eat the filling. I’ve spent hours stuffing those leaves when I could have just been enjoying the insides. Your filling sounds excellent, but I was just thinking that a bit of umeboshi vinegar might be interesting.

  7. I think I might have to make the rice casserole this weekend and freeze. Would be a great lunch side with mediterranean fish.

  8. I remember that postmodern nonsense from my undergrad years. Great post.

    I’ve just printed this recipe. I’m excited to try it!

  9. Courtney says:

    I have made homemade dolmades a few times in the past (my mother loves them and I sometimes make them for her birthday), and they are quite the chore! They take forever, and your “deconstructed” version looks amazingly great! I may make this for her the next time we are in the same state on her birthday…with grape leaves for rolling on the side! Haha!

    Courtney

  10. OMG, that looks sooo delicious.. I am inspired to create a dish based on this for our deli case at work!

    Also, I love how your mind works. I enjoyed your deconstruction of the deconstruction.

  11. Opa! And yes, please! (to Greek food, that is)

    Dolmades can be a bit tricky to make, so I like the idea of your deconstructed rice casserole even better.

  12. Your deconstructed dish sounds like a much better concept than language deconstruction. I love the filling of dolmades, but could take or leave the grape leaves, themselves, so this dish sounds great to me.

  13. yep I love dolmades and hate the work of making them – I confess to eating them out of tins but I love your version which makes me feel better about them and about deconstruction! Although I still hope that one day I will try actually rolling them, I suspect this version would be the favoured one!

  14. Just discovered your blog and absolutely loving it. Deconstruction sounds like a total nightmare. I’m reading your blog as a welcome break from studying for my MSc exams, not deconstruction though, thankfully! I love the idea of this dish, why not? It looks very hearty and very delicious too.

  15. Good thinking Ricki! It looks absolutely delicious. Would be good with some feta sprinkled on top too!

    I am glad I never had to study deconstruction :(

  16. Karen,

    What a wonderful story! I swear, next time I go out to eat, if I like what I’m eating, I’m asking for the recipe!! Lucky you. :)

    AndreaZ,
    Hmm. D-con–yes, it sometimes felt like some kind of “poison”!! ;) Love the umeboshi idea, thanks. For next time!

    grumpychair,
    Yay! Glad this one is good for you. Let me know how you like it if you do try it.

    Lisa,
    I wish I’d been able to recognize it as “nonsense” when I was in the throes of it. . . I guess getting older is useful in some ways, at least!

    Courtney,
    Wow, are you ever a great daughter! (Though I’m sure your mother appreciates the hours of sweat and toil to make real dolmades). This really is a lazy person’s version, but still really good.

    Melody,
    How cool that you work where they’d serve this in a deli case? (Where–? Okay, I’m off to your blog to see if I can find it). And glad you liked the de/con(struc)tion!! ;)

    Monika,
    I’ve never actually tried them from scratch, but I imagine they’d be really hard (and the comments so far seem to corroborate that idea!). This is a nice way to bet around it.

    CCV,
    Yes, much better than the literary theory! I actually do love the leaves, but have never tried using them instead of collards in this casserole. . .may give it a try next time.

    Johanna,
    I actually eat the canned variety often as well, when I crave the “real” thing. I’ll look forward to your post if/when you give the rolled ones a try.

    Helen,
    Thanks so much for your kind comment, and for visiting! And best of luck with those exams, whatever the theory involved ;)

    holler,
    Feta would be a great addition, I think. And all I can say is, you don’t know how lucky you are to have avoided that blasted theory. . . ;)

  17. I am getting that, Ricki! Phew!

  18. simply beautiful and I have a huge bag of pine nuts I’ve been trying to find ways to use. Was this for me? ;) I have this on the “must” list! I love the taste of the Mediterranean!

  19. I just harvested and prepped some grape leaves (instructions at my blog), but now I’m too tired to make dolmades. This is a great idea!

  20. ooh, another good one:) Made this tonight with some swiss chard straight from the farm!!

  21. trying this recipe this week for sure!

  22. i am greek and loved this! i found your blog today from the healthy apron…..your black lab looks like mine :)
    happy friday!

  23. I made this for dinner and it was delicious! I rarely eat collards because they remind me of the disgusting way my family prepared it growing up (with lots of bacon grease and a ham hock), so nowadays the only way I eat it is for raw collard wraps. But after using them in this recipe, I’m sure I’ll end up cooking them far more often!

  24. Ricki,
    I came running over from Twitter because I could not wait to see this recipe. I make stuffed grape leaves ( we are Middle Eastern) and it’s such a job! This is much easier.I’ll be trying it..Great post .. Thanks.

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