Eilene trimmed our grape plant—it was starting to overrun the fig tree. I looked at all of these fresh grape leaves and thought dolmas! I have made them with bottled preserved leaves, but I am sure they are even better with fresh leaves. When you say “dolma” you have only said “stuffed thing.” What is stuffed and what you stuff it with can cover a world of possibilities.
Under various names, dolmas are made all over the Middle East, the Balkans, up into Russia and east into Central Asia. Stuffed grape and cabbage leaves are only the starting point, a variety of vegetables may be hollowed out and stuffed. Even small fish, squid, and mussels may be turned in dolmas.
The filings, also, can be varied, but usually include rice or another grain and onions. Each country, and even region, has their own ideas of what constitutes the “proper” filling and what it should be stuffed into. Vegetarian dolmas are usually served cold. While meat dolmas are generally served warm, with or without a sauce.
When you are starting with raw rice, it may take an hour to fully cook dolmas. Many recipes call for simmering them in a shallow pan covered in a liquid. While this gives you the opportunity to make this liquid a flavorful gravy, it opens the danger of scorching the bottom of the pan. You cannot stir dolmas while they are cooking and what sticks to the bottom stays on the bottom.
I think of dolmas as Greek tamales—only you can eat the corn husks—and I cook them the same way. I have a large pot that has a wire rack that holds my dish an inch off the bottom. With the ingredients out of the water, they steam without scorching. If the pot starts to dry out, I can pour more water down the side of the pot to replenish the liquid without disturbing my dish.
I ended up with not enough fresh leaves for my filling. I ran out to the Middle Eastern market and bought a jar of preserved leaves (the expensive ones $5.80 vs. $3.50). I will taste test with the girl’s to see if fresh leaves are better.
After Dinner Note: The girls had no difficulty at all telling bottled from fresh leaves. The bottled leaves were more tender and easier to chew. The fresh ones were tougher, but sweeter and greener. Their preference was clear, fresh was better.
Side Note: Yesterday, one of Jan’s friends gave her a bag full of Black Mission figs. I made a fig jam and we have decided that tomorrow’s dinner will be another taste test. Which cheese would go best with fig jam and fresh crackers?
Karl’s Greek Dolmas
Dressing, separate uses
4 Tbs. olive oil
4 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
3 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp. lemon zest
½ tsp. black pepper
1 cup rice, long grain uncooked
½ lb. lamb, coarsely minced (leave out for Vegan/Vegetarian)
1 medium onions, chopped finely
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup Zante currents, dried
¼ cup curly-leafed parsley, minced
2 Tbs. fresh mint, minced
2 tsp. dried dill weed
1 tsp. allspice
½ tsp. Kosher salt
1 jar grape leaves (I am using fresh leaves – wash, stem and blanch to soften)
5-10 Cherry tomatoes (optional)
Lemon wedges (optional)
1. Add the oil, lemon juice, garlic, and pepper to a small jar. Put a lid on the jar and shake well to mix.
Tip: You will be adding half of the dressing to the filling and drizzling the remainder over the finished dolmas.
2. Put the rice in a mixing bowl.
3. Cut the lamb into very small pieces and add it to the rice.
Tip: You may use ground lamb, but cutting it yourself into small bits will give you more texture. Slice the meat into a quarter inch dice and then chop it up just a bit more. Ideally, you want the lamb pieces to be the same size as the pine nuts and currents.
After Dinner Note: Jan said that the only thing that would make these better was if I had left out the meat. Eilene and I figure that as long as two of us are happy, it is all good.
4. Add the onion, pine nuts, currents, parsley, mint, dill, and allspice to the rice.
5. Drizzle half of the oil and lemon mixture over the contents of the bowl.
6. Add half a cup of warn water and mix together to blend completely.
7. Let the rice mixture rest for half an hour, stirring frequently to redistribute the liquids.
Tip: The water will be absorbed by the meat and will provide the some of the moisture needed to re-hydrate the rice, as well as giving it some of its meaty flavor.
8. Drain and separate the grape leaves.
Tip: If you are using fresh leaves, put them in a pot of boiling water and remove it from the heat. After 3-5 minutes, drain the leaves and put them in ice water to cool.
9. Stuff the grape leaves and lay them with the loose edge down on a tray.
Tip: Some recipes call for pinning the loose edge down with a toothpick. I do not do this, because as the rice cooks it expands. The rolled leaf must be free to slightly unravel as this happens or it will burst.
10. Put a tall round wire rack into a large pot and add water up to the rack.
11. Lay a few large grape leaves over the rack.
Tip: You want two or three layers of leave over the wires, but do not block off the edges of the pot completely. There needs to be a few gaps to let the steam rise from underneath.
12. Loosly lay the dolmas, pointing in, in a circle around the edge of the pot.
Tip: You do not want to pack the dolmas tightly and leave about a quarter to a half inch gap beterrn the dolmas and all around the edge of the pot.
13. Lay 2 or three dolmas in the hold in the center of the circle.
Tip: If you have more dolmas for the pot, lay them loosely across the first layer (at 90 degrees) leaving gaps between each dolma. You want the structure to be open enough so that the steam can reach each dolma. If necessary, add a third layer, again at 90 degrees to the second.
14. Place a plate over the dolmas and bring the pot to a boil.
Tip: Check the pot after 30 minutes to see of the liquid is getting too low. Add water as necessary by pouring it down the side of the pot.
15. Reduce the heat and cover the pot. Simmer for 40 minutes to an hour and ten minutes.
Tip: The rice in dolmas is always problematical. With it buried inside the grape leaves, it is difficult to tell when it is completely cooked. The only real way to do this is the cook’s test—you take one dolma out of the pot and take a bite. If the rice is not done, give the rest of the dolmas ten more minutes, as needed. However, do not steam the dolmas so long that the rice becomes soggy.
17. Arrange the dolmas to a serving plate and drizzle the remaining oil and lemon sauce over them.
Note: The mellowness of the garlic cooked into the dolmas contrasted nicely with the sharpness of the raw garlic in the lemon sauce.
18. Garnish with cherry tomatoes and serve warm.
Tip: But I like them cold.
Note: We had a bowl full of tiny tomatoes from our garden that were just sitting on the counter. I did not want them to go to waste and the bright red seemed just the thing to brighten up a rather dull green dish.