One of the better things about summer and early fall in the Pacific Northwest is that this is the time that grape leaves finally get big enough to use in cooking. That means that it is time to make dolmas …or at least my version of it. And if you have your own particular version of this dish, you are not alone. As it turns out, the idea of stuffing grapes leaves with various spices, dried fruits, grains, and meats is wildly popular. Although the term is Turkish in origin and also refers to hollowed out and stuffed vegetables, stuffed vine leaves fall under the umbrella term. I make mine with lamb, dried cherries, and rice and spice them pretty conservatively with allspice, cinnamon, and paprika. Tomato and lemon juice are there to sharpen the flavors somewhat and mint provides a nice aromatic touch. Although dolmas are commonly baked as a casserole, I prefer mine steamed so that the texture is firmer.
Dolmas made with fresh grape leaves are much, much better than dolmas that are made from preserved grape leaves. That said, I usually will can a stockpile of grape leaves for use throughout the winter and they taste just fine. If you don’t have room or inclination to can your own, they sell such things at the grocery store. In order to prepare fresh grape leaves for use you will need to blanch them. Simply drop them into boiling water (preferably a broad, shallow pan) for 2 to 3 minutes in order to make them pliable. Fish them out with a pair of tongs and set them aside on plate. If you didn’t make your filling in advance, cover the leaves with a lid so they don’t dry out excessively.
The stuffing for dolmas is really simple and easily customized to your individual tastes. In my opinion, you need meat, onions/garlic, some form of grain, lemon juice, and some type of dried fruit. You will often see recipes that include nuts and I sometimes use slivered almonds in mine. Spices will vary depending on what area of the Mediterranean the recipe comes from. To make the filling, brown the onions/garlic and then the meat. Add the spices and let the flavor develop by cooking the mixture for a few minutes. When you are satisfied, stir in the dried fruit, the tomato paste, water, and lemon juice. Let the mixture simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavors together; it is really likely that you will need to add water. Taste the mixture and adjust the flavor to your personal preference, remove from heat and stir in the cooked rice and mint dead last.
At this point, you should have something that closely resembles Hamburger Helper but is much tastier. Let it cool until it can be easily handled and then get ready to stuff your leaves. This is a very simple process; put about 1 tablespoon (or what your leaf can tolerate) on the stem end of the leaf. Fold the sides over and roll the leaf into a tight bundle as shown below. When you have a nice, tidy bundle, dredge it through some olive oil in order to coat the surface and then place it, seam-side down in your steamer. The oil helps keep the leaf from drying out during the steaming process. To cook the dolmas, place a lid on your steamer and set it over a boiling pan of water. Steam for about 15 to 20 minutes.
The finished dolmas can be served as either a main dish or as a simple side, as pictured to the left. They are especially tasty with cucumber and yogurt sauce but also go very well with commercially available sweet chili sauce. One thing worth noting is that the steamed grape leaves will likely be chewy. If they are too tough for you, you need to fix this during the blanching stage of cooking; blanch them longer to soften them just a bit.
Hope you enjoy!
- 1 lb. ground lamb
- 1 to 2 small onions, minced
- 4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. allspice, ground
- ½ tsp cinnamon, ground
- 1½ tsp. black peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. sugar
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 6 oz. tomato paste
- ⅔ cup water
- ⅓ cup dried cherries, diced
- ⅓ cup cooked long grain rice
- ½ cup fresh mint, finely chopped
- 12 to 15 grape leaves, fresh if possible
- olive oil to brown meat and to coat rolls
- In a medium skillet, heat 3 Tbs. olive oil over high heat. Brown onions and garlic. Add lamb, reduce heat to medium high and continue cooking until lamb is browned.
- Add spices and cook an addition 2 to 3 minutes until fragrant.
- Add dried cherries, sugar, tomato paste, lemon juice, and water. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes to combine flavors.
- Remove from heat. Add cooked rice and mint leaves and set aside to cool.
- If using fresh grape leaves (which you should), blanch grape leaves for 2 to 3 minutes in boiling water to soften. Drain leaves.
- Place about 1 Tbs. filling on stem end of leaf, fold sides over and roll into a tight bundle. When rolled, dredge through a plate of olive oil to coat roll. Place in bamboo steamer.
- Steam over boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. Drizzle with lemon juice, if desired, and serve.