Of all the exotically spiced dishes I ate that night, one still fills my soul with intimations of culinary immortality: the “Pipe Dream” goat cheese, seasoned with zaatar and wrapped in grape leaves with Santorini tomato jam. I don’t have the slightest idea why they are called “pipe dream” on the menu. They looked like traditional stuffed grape leaves, but inside was cool, crumbly piece of pungent goat cheese, filled with a layer of zaatar spice. Zaatar a spice mix used in the cuisine of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, much like garam masala is used in Indian cooking. Like garam masala, it has infinite variations, but the consensus seems to be that it consists of dried thyme, ground sumac, lightly toasted white sesame seeds, and salt. Sumac is blood red in color and has a sour, slightly astringent taste. The slightly crisp, popcorny texture of the sesame seeds, as well as the familiar yet hard to place flavor of the zaatar is a critical element of the dish. I got the proportions for the spice mix from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, an amazing resource on the cooking of that region. I had to go to a gourmet shop for the sumac, or it is available online at Penzey’s.
But this is supposed to be about tomatoes. I was unsure if I would ever be able to make a reasonable equilavent of the goat cheese-stuffed grape leaves, but ever since that dinner at Zaytinya, I have been mulling that tomato jam over in my mind. It was pure tomato in a sweet, slightly runny, jelly-like guise. Next to the zaatar-marbled goat cheese, it was perfect. It made the dish, and it was just jam after all.
I may have been in thrall of the tomato jam, but I had no idea how to make it. When the July issue of Food & Wine arrived with a simple version of tomato jam right on the cover, I took it as a sign that it was time to attempt a pipe dream of my own. F&W’s jam is a bit more rustic than Zaytinya’s, but the flavor did justice to my idealized memories. After boiling for 45 minutes, as the directions indicated, I thought is was still a bit runny, so I added a generous teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with water, and it thickened right up. Of course, you can just continue simmering until it reaches the consistency that pleases you. I didn’t want too many chunks of tomato, so when it was done, I used my immersion blender to smooth it out. Putting this little mezze together does take multiple steps, but nothing is difficult. I usually avoid anything so fussy as leaf-stuffing, but my desire to taste those grape leaves again cancelled out my culinary laziness. And it was worth it.
After soaking the grape leaves to remove their brine, we laid them out on paper towels.
Place the zaatar-filled log of goat cheese at the stem end of a grape leaf.
Fold in the sides of the leaf, then roll up like a cigar.
Arrange the stuffed grape leaves in a dish and sprinkle with lemon and olive oil.
We followed the grape leaves and tomato jam with fillets of orange roughy, simply sauteed with salt, pepper and olive oil in a cast iron skillet. The fish is has very flaky, firm flesh and a slightly sweet taste. The stuffed grape leaves make a pretty presentation, but don't forget the tomato jam!
Zaytinya’s Goat Cheese-Stuffed Grape Leaves with Fresh Tomato Jam
Makes 16-20 stuffed grape leaves and 1 ¼ cups jam
Jam recipe adapted from Food & Wine, July 2006
4 to 6 (depending on size) vine-ripened tomatoes
¼ c. apple cider vinegar
3 tblsp. honey
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. salt
½ tblsp. cornstarch dissolved in 1 tblsp. water (optional)
Finely chopped basil or mint
30 to 40 grape leaves (you won’t use them all, but some will tear or be too small)
8 oz. log goat cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
Zaatar spice blend:
2 tblsp. lightly toasted sesame seeds
2 tblsp. dried thyme
½ tblsp. ground sumac
¼ tsp. salt or to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Core the tomatoes and score the opposite end by cutting a shallow “X.” Boil the tomatoes for 1 to 1 ½ minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into the ice water to stop cooking. Remove the tomatoes from the ice water and slip their skins off with your fingers. Cut each tomato in half, remove the seeds and coarsely chop. In a medium saucepan, combine the chopped tomatoes, vinegar, honey, cumin, ginger and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 45 minutes. If you want a thicker consistency than this, add 1 tsp. of the cornstarch mixture to the jam. Add more cornstarch mixture until it is no longer watery, but a little bit goes a long way. If you want a smooth jam, puree in a blender, or use an immersion blender to create the desired texture. Chill in the fridge for 1 hour, or for 10 minutes in a shallow dish in the freezer. Stir in fresh basil or mint just before serving. May be made up to 48 hours in advance.
While the jam is cooking, prep the grape leaves. Most likely, you bought them in a jar in a briny, citric acid solution. To do away with the salty off-taste, gently unroll the grape leaves and put them in a large bowl. Pour boiling water over them to cover. Soak for 10-15 minutes, swishing them around a bit. Drain, then fill the bowl with cold water, and soak for a few minutes. Repeat with more cold water, then drain in a colander. Carefully separate the grape leaves and lay them out on paper towels. This takes patience, and it is okay if they tear a little. You can also overlap two leaves, if they are small or torn.
Make the zaatar: toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over low heat until lightly browned. Remove to a bowl. Add the thyme, sumac and salt. Stir to combine.
Assemble the stuffed grape leaves: Cut a ¼ inch slice from your log of goat cheese, then cut the slice in half. Pack ¼ to ½ tsp. zaatar onto one half, and top with the other half like a sandwich. Use your fingers to mold the goat cheese into a little log. Place the cheese at the stem end of a grape leaf. Fold in the sides of the leaf and roll up like a cigar. Continue with the remaining goat cheese. Sprinkle stuffed grape leaves with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve cold or at room temperature with the tomato jam. May be made up to 24 hours in advance.