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At this time of year, those who sensibly have a pot with a grape vine growing in it can enjoy the unique green taste of the tiniest fresh leaves. They can be torn into a simply dressed salad, while larger ones can be wrapped around a rice and lamb mixture and cooked slowly. The green flavour of the raw leaves will change into something a bit richer with tastes of resin and wood.

The rest of us can evoke these flavours all year round by using vine leaves in brine — mature leaves cured in a salt solution. The flavour here is a different thing altogether: richly savoury and slightly sour, brined leaves lend a magical tone to everything they are cooked with.

The traditional, best-known way to serve these vine leaves is to roll them into little cigars filled with seasoned rice and then cook them slowly with lemon and oil — dolmades in Greek, yaprak in Arabic — a delicious but very time-consuming business and one that requires dexterity and practice.

Another, simpler way to enjoy this lovely ingredient is to wrap the leaves around small fish or pieces of meat and grill or roast them. The brined leaves will provide the seasoning and taste but also protect the delicate flesh of, say, sardines or red mullet from drying out in the fierce heat, while preserving that precious hint of smoke.

Here we offer another way. It does require some work but it’s nothing compared to the result which, though we say so ourselves, is spectacular: creamy goat’s cheese and feta seasoned with all manner of herbs, currants and roasted pine nuts and encased in vine leaves — they complement each other so well. Then all this is wrapped again with roasted red peppers — silky smooth, sweet and smoky, a bright red dress for this particular party girl.

© Patricia Niven

Red pepper, vine leaf and goat’s cheese dolma cake

A main course for four or a starter for eight

large long red peppers (known as Romano or capya peppers)
100g vine leaves in brine
For the filling
40g dried currants 
40g roasted pine nuts
200g crumbled feta
200g crumbled goat’s cheese
minced garlic clove
10g chopped fresh mint (leaves from half a small bunch)
10g chopped fresh parsley (leaves from half a small bunch)
10g chopped dill (fronds from 1 small bunch)
1 tbschopped fresh thyme leaves (or 1 tsp dried oregano)
 Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
2 tbs cornflour
For the dressing 
vine leaves, very finely chopped
15g roasted pine nuts
lime, zest and then segment and cut into small dice
3 tbs olive oil
  1. Unless you have a BBQ working in the back garden, set your oven to grill at maximum heat and place the peppers under the grill for 10 minutes or until blackened on one side. Then turn the peppers using tongs and return to the grill for another six to eight minutes until blackened all over. If you are using a BBQ, simply rotate until they are charred all over. Transfer to a large bowl or tray and cover with cling film so they steam a little and cool.
  2. While you are waiting, mix all the filling ingredients together but don’t overwork them. You can also mix all the dressing ingredients together and set aside.
  3. Once the peppers are cold enough to handle, peel the skin and slit the pepper so that you can spread each one as a conical sheet of red cloth. Brush off the seeds, but don’t worry if a couple stick around — and don’t wash them, as you will lose so much of the great flavour. Line a circular tin with a piece of baking paper and then line with the peppers, allowing lots of overflow. The best way is to place the tip of the pepper in the centre and match the next one until you have covered the entire tin. Then repeat with the vine leaves, fill with all the cheese filling and fold over the overhang to close the cake. You can do this stage in advance and when you are ready to serve, heat your oven to 180C.
  4. Cook for 25 minutes. (While you are waiting, mix the dressing ingredients together, if you haven’t already done so.) Remove the cake from the oven and flip on to a serving platter. Top with the dressing and serve immediately with some crusty sourdough.


Photographs: Patricia Niven

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