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Grape leaves are essential wrappers for Lamb Dolmas, a traditional Greek snack on the menu at The Tavern at Lark Creek, where chef Aaron Wright prefers to use house-brined, fresh leaves. Photo courtesy of the tavern at lark creek. Stuffed, wrapped and rolled proteins bring an enticing element of surprise to the plate

By Karen Weisberg

There’s just something quintessentially “fun” about tucking into a plated presentation that’s stuffed, wrapped or rolled. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, it signifies that the chef has taken a bit of extra time in creating a special little surprise package, elegantly “gift-wrapped,” done up properly and tied with a bow.

It may be a scrumptious center-of-the-plate entrée or a street-food nibble, but when set before a guest, it invariably elicits a frisson of anticipation; even though the menu description spells it out clearly, just what surprise awaits “inside?”

When Anne Coll, executive chef at 45-seat Meritage Restaurant & Wine Bar in Philadelphia, writes her menu, she typically blends French techniques with Asian flavor profiles. Having served previously as executive chef at Susanna Foo’s on Walnut Street for six years, following stints at Le Bec-Fin and Savona (all in the Philadelphia area), she’s a true master of fusion without confusion. Her grilled grape leaf-wrapped Scottish salmon, potato tart, lemon grass and dill beurre blanc is a perfect blend of both influences and provides a unique take on Scottish salmon.

“We do about a 7-ounce portion of salmon encased in two pre-brined grape leaves,” Coll says. “We marinate the salmon in a bit of lemon/dill, salt and pepper, wrap it tightly and grill to medium rare. The leaves become a bit charred, but most people eat them rather than discard them.

“I thought the grape leaves — with their bit of acidic brining — would cut some of the fatty flavor of the salmon and provide a nice contrast.”

Coll explains that grape leaves have a “nori quality” to them and, since nori, or edible seaweed, is generally hard to procure, she finds substituting grape leaves works well.

“When I started here about a year and a half ago, Grilled Kobe Grape Leaves was probably one of the most popular snack items on the menu and served as inspiration.”

To complete her salmon presentation, Coll prepares an Idaho potato tart of shredded potato, seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, blended with finely shredded onion, salt and pepper plus lemon zest and thyme, and then bakes the combined mixture in mini tart pans. The beurre blanc incorporates lemon grass and a white-wine reduction (preferably a dry Sauvignon Blanc) with dry vermouth.

“To plate, we cut the salmon in half on the bias so the guest sees it’s cooked to medium rare,” she explains.

The Meritage snack menu ($5 per plate) boasts several stuffed dumpling items, including Hudson Valley Foie Gras Dumpling and, on occasion, Shrimp and Crab Dumpling. One of the most popular of this genre, Pork and Shiitake Dumpling, boasts a stuffing of ground pork, napa cabbage, a generous amount of shiitake, scallion, coriander, Spanish onion, garlic and ginger, along with roasted-in-house Szechuan peppercorn salt.

“We use a gyoza wrapper,” notes Coll, “making sure it’s room temperature before stuffing it so it’s more malleable and doesn’t break, then we use water — not an egg wash — to crimp the edges.”

Prior to stuffing, she folds the gyoza wrapper into a half-moon shape with two pleats; the bottom is flat, with the seam pointed up to the ceiling. She steams the stuffed dumpling (or par boils until it rises to the top like ravioli), removes it from the pot, then gives it a few minutes to air dry.

“Finally, I pan fry in Szechuan garlic oil or vegetable oil on medium heat, about one minute each on all three sides,” she says. This snack-for-sharing portion includes three dumplings garnished with green salad, all plated atop a soy reduction.

Crispy fried oysters make an unexpected showing tucked into a pocket of juicy tenderloin, a specialty of Jonathan’s at Gratz Park in Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy of jonathan’s. Meritage guests look forward to savoring Coll’s Short Rib Taco, which rotates on and off the snack menu; hers is a tasty mélange of marinated short rib, Korean barbecue sauce and kimchi — all wrapped in a crispy flour tortilla.

Grape leaves (as in Coll’s Scottish salmon dish) also prove to be a popular wrapping of choice with Executive Chef Aaron Wright at The Tavern at Lark Creek in Larkspur, Calif. (The Tavern is one of 14 diverse locations in California and Nevada operated by Lark Creek Restaurant Group.)

Needless to say, when preparing Lamb Dolmas ($7.95, four or five per-portion), one must use grape leaves, or it simply wouldn’t be the traditional Greek snack.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with a degree in Global Culinary Traditions, Wright also brings to the table a longstanding commitment to using the freshest seasonal ingredients, so if he can get fresh grape leaves he’s very pleased.

“They’re a novelty in the summertime, and they generally have better color than canned, but canned are OK,” he says. “If they’re fresh, we brine them ourselves, preferably the day before service, making sure they’re boiled for about two minutes to loosen up the leaves and make them more pliable [prior to stuffing]. Canned grape leaves come brined, and we’ll trim the stems and quickly boil them to help lose some of their saltiness.”

Keeping a close eye on cost containment for his value-driven menu, Wright usually incorporates several cuts of lamb in preparing his dolmas and suggests using sirloin or ordering ground lamb from your purveyor. To prepare, he browns off the meat in extra-virgin olive oil, seasoning with onion, cumin and other spices; he then adds red bell pepper, crushed tomatoes, pine nuts and golden raisins, plus parsley and oregano, thoroughly mixing all ingredients together. He adds raw basmati rice to the mix, making sure a good amount of lamb is included. With a cutting board as base, Wright rolls one tablespoon of the mixture in each grape leaf (top side of the leaf is up); each “packet” measures about 1/2 inch by 1 inch.

“When all the mixture is used up, place the dolmas into a half-pan lined with grape leaves, adding chicken stock plus a bit of lemon juice, just to cover them, then top with more grape leaves,” he says. “Finally, cover with a perforated pan and wrap it all with foil to retain moisture as it bakes in a 350 degree F oven for 45 minutes.”

Upon removing the dolmas from the oven, Wright likes to drizzle a bit of extra-virgin olive oil over all to create an appealing high-gloss finish.

Speaking of wrapped protein, Wright recalls a Tunisian dish he learned to prepare at the CIA, though admittedly it’s not on The Tavern menu as of yet. Here, the wrap of choice is feuille de brique, those round, paper-thin crêpes that come frozen from his purveyor.

“Brown off ground beef, lamb or chicken, perhaps some chorizo, and mix with potatoes — like a breakfast combo — then crack an egg on top,” he says. “Gather up the crêpe around the ingredients and deep fry very fast; when the guest opens it, the egg breaks — it’s a wonderful street food! Stack them as a portion or cut twice on the bias.”

Wright also suggests including cheese within the wrap and perhaps roasting the stuffed brique to top a salad.

“You could also do this with a 5-to-6 ounce lamb loin. Roll it in herbs, salt and pepper and add prosciutto; roll it in feuille de brique, pan sear, then roast in the oven to medium rare and slice into four pieces to portion.”

As most any Lexington, Ky., restaurant-goer knows by now, Jonathan Lundy is a bonafide ambassador for authentic Kentucky Bluegrass cuisine. As chef/owner of 100-seat Jonathan’s at Gratz Park — opened with his wife, Cara, in the historic area of downtown Lexington in 1998 — this Kentucky native is proud of his horse-country roots and its culinary traditions.

In fact, his great-great-great-grandfather William Monroe Wright was the founding owner of Calumet Baking Powder Company and also established Calumet Farm, which produced two Triple Crown winners and eight Kentucky Derby winners.

Lundy’s cookbook, “Jonathan’s Bluegrass Table, Redefining Kentucky Cuisine” (Butler Books, 2009) showcases traditional regional recipes sparked by his own inimitable whimsy.

At Lundy’s restaurant, Cracker-Fried Oyster-Stuffed Filet has been a guest favorite over the years, and these days he prepares it by special request. “I tried to kill it about five or six years ago, but I couldn’t; people continue to order it — and the [order] key is still in the P.O.S. system,” he grins.

The color and texture of the filling aren’t fully hidden by the delicate rice wrappers enfolding these ponzu-glazed avocado and salmon spring rolls. Photo courtesy of hass avocado board. Since the requisite oysters and beef are invariably on hand, Lundy can always produce the dish. To prepare, he preheats the oven to 40 degrees F and also pre-heats the grill, then grills 8-ounce tenderloin filets about three to four minutes per side. After removing them from the grill, he sets them aside on a sheet tray — up to an hour prior to serving.

“When I’m almost ready to fry the ‘extra-select’ oysters that I’ve coated in a coarse white-cracker breading, I place the meat in the oven to finish cooking for about eight to 10 minutes for medium.

“At that point [of doneness], I make a pocket in the filet, then cram in one oyster with a second one jammed halfway in behind it, then tilt the filet upon the plate so it looks as though it’s bulging.”

A house-made demi-glace (prepared with two parts horseradish to one part coarse-ground mustard), sautéed fresh spinach and mashed potatoes complete the plate.

Portland, Ore., is more than a gallop from Kentucky horse country, but Sarah Pliner, co-chef/co-owner (with Jasper Shen and Katherine Whitehead) has the perfect “trifecta” on the menu at Aviary, opened in February in the heart of the quirky Alberta Street Arts District. There, the Brioche-Crusted Halibut with Sea Urchin, Spinach and Cucumber is not only stuffed, but wrapped and rolled!

“It’s one of our top sellers; some nights it seems like every table orders it,” Pliner is pleased to report.

Over the past two decades, she has cooked in some of the finest restaurants from coast to coast, including the Essex House, Aquavit and Aldea in New York City as well as The Heathman Restaurant in Portland, Ore.

“At Aquavit, there was a salmon stuffed with gravlax on the menu; we wanted to do it here, but differently,” Pliner explains. “Here in Oregon, halibut [from Alaska] is big.

“I feel there needs to be a crispy, butter contrast with halibut — and you can’t do it with halibut skin, so we crust it with brioche. It’s stuffed with sea urchin (about 1 ounce) that’s wrapped in shiso leaf, similar to basil.”

To prepare, Pliner lays the fish skin-side down to skin with a long knife. Thinly sliced brioche is laid out on the table atop plastic wrap and coated with egg wash. “We put about a 4-ounce portion of halibut plus the shiso-wrapped sea urchin on a slice of brioche and roll it up. We pan fry it in butter so it becomes crispy outside and barely cooked inside; the sea urchin is barely warm,” she explains.

To complete this very rich small plate, ideal for sharing, Pliner prepares spinach as a play on Japanese oshitashi, a traditional cold spinach dish.

“We make it with mirin, rice vinegar, white miso and sesame. For a cucumber touch, we peel, seed and sauté cucumber in clarified butter, puree with shiso leaf, then make a ‘swoosh’ of it on the plate, add the spinach and slice the halibut so the guest can see a cross section.”

The plate is finished with a dollop of umeboshi paste (Japanese pickled plum) crowning each of the three halibut slices — all perfectly stuffed, wrapped and rolled.


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