My guest this week, Deborah Shahloub, and I have had a friendly argument over the years as to who makes the best dolma. Dolmas, for those of you who may not know, are stuffed grape leaves. They bear a slight resemblance to cigar butts, which is why my brother and I refused to eat them for years as children. But once we finally took the plunge, they became a favorite. In fact, the best present I can give my brother is a batch of dolmas.
Of course, the traditional dolma that both Deb and I learned from our grandmothers is made with lamb and beef. But Deborah has adapted a vegetarian dolma recipe which she shared on Vegetarian Cooking For Carnivores. This is one of those recipes where you can adapt it to suit yourself – if you want a little more of this, or a little less of that, go for it.
Deborah actually picks her own grape leaves – something I’ve never tried. Make sure you wash them well, then blanch them to soften them a bit. If you like, you can freeze them for future use. But for those of you who, like me, want to buy them, you can find them in the grocery store – probably in the olive/pickle section, or if there’s a Mediterranean market in your area, they’ll carry them. When Deb runs out of her fresh ones and has to buy them, she blanches them to wash away the brine in which the jarred ones are soaked. I actually like the brine taste so I use them as is.
DEBORAH’S VEGETARIAN DOLMA
1 onion, chopped
2/3 cup brown rice, uncooked (Deb uses Brown Rice Medley from Trader Joe’s)
1 T olive oil
salt & pepper
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup currants
optional: 1/4 cup orange flavored cranberries (can be found at Trader Joe’s)
1 jar of grape leaves (buy 2 in case you need more)
Heat oil in a skillet and saute onions for about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir. Cover with water, add salt & pepper, and bring to boil. Lower heat to simmer, cover, and cook until rice has absorbed all the water. Keep an eye on this so you don’t burn it. Some rices absorb faster than others. Set your timer so you don’t forget. REPEAT: set your timer so you don’t forget! Once the water is gone, stir in the pine nuts, currants, and cranberries (if using).
Now for the fun part – rolling the dolmas. In the old days, women would gather and chat while rolling. It’s really a mindless task but takes a while. If you have no one to help, you can watch TV, listen to music, or chat on speakerphone. The key to rolling dolmas is to NOT OVERSTUFF. If you do, they will burst open when you boil them because the rice is not through expanding, and the currants will expand, too.
The first thing to do is to cut any stem left on the leaves right down to the nub. Lay the leaf vein side up, leaf point away from you (base towards you). Smoosh about 1/4 cup of the rice mix into a sausage shape. The amount will depend on the size of the leaf. Lay the roll widthwise where the stem met the leaf. Roll up the leaf below the roll to cover it. Fold in the leaf on either side of the roll. Now just roll the bundle up to the tip of the leaf like you were rolling up a sleeping bag. Don’t roll too tightly, or too loosely. You want a little room for the ingredients to expand, but not so much room that the dolma will unroll. As you’re done with each dolma, place it in a large pot.
Once all the dolmas are rolled, cover with water or vegetable stock just to the top of the dolmas, then place a few of the really large leaves you didn’t use (or a plate as they do in Deborah’s family)on top. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 1 hour.
Dolmas freeze really well, so if you like them, double the batch next time and freeze some for future meals.