While doing some trimming today we accidentally brought down a branch from the grape vine in our backyard arbor. I’ve been waiting for our modest vine to become a vast and verdant shade for several years now–if not exactly in the Tarzan-swingin’-through-the-jungle category, at least one lush enough to protect my pale noggin from the harsh Southern California sun. Losing even a single branch felt like a setback to me.
I was just about to chuck it into the dumpster when I realized that most of its leaves were of a suitable size and texture for making dolmas–or dolmades or sarmas, depending on where you live in the Mediterranean and Arabic reaches of the globe. Essentially, a dolma is any stuffed food such as a squash, quince, bell pepper or even an apple. Stuffed grape leaves are what we tend to see most around here.
I snipped a dozen of the largest but tenderest leaves to stuff. If you want to try this, but like me, you don’t want to denude your grape vines, sneak a dozen leaves that are about the size of your open hand (unless you’re professional basketball player, in which case you’ll want to measure those leaves by someone else’s paw) and make just enough filling for them (a lot of recipes yield enough filling for about five dozen dolmas). Share them with one other person, and you’ll have enough for a generous appetizer for two.
This filling makes enough for about a dozen dolmas. Stir together:
½ cup cooked rice–I used brown rice left over from last night’s dinner.
¼ cup toasted pine nuts. Toast them in a dry pan on the stove top over low/medium heat until they start to turn golden and their aroma makes you swoon. They burn easily, so don’t turn your back on them!
¼ cup dried currants
¼ cup finely chopped & sautéed yellow onion
Stir it all together and add enough salt and black pepper to make you happy. Maybe a little cinnamon, too. And a squeeze of lemon juice. If adding a few fresh herbs of your choice (chopped, of course) will make you even happier, then by all means do that too. I used fresh oregano, but dill and mint work well and I’m sure are more authentic.
Blanch the leaves in salty water (just a few seconds is all they’ll need), pat them dry with paper towels and then stuff them. If there’s any filling left, I won’t tattle on you if you want to eat it out of the bowl with your fingers.
Here’s how to roll up a grape leaf:
Lay the blanched leaf shiny side down on a clean surface with the stem end of the leaf closest to you. Put about a tablespoon of filling into the center of the leaf.
Fold the leaf away from you and over filling.
Bring in the two sides of the leaf over the center and press them around that first fold.
Then roll the bundle all the way up. Be sure the roll is snug but not so tight that the leaf splits open.
Place the rolls loose edge down in the steamer basket and snug up against each other so that they don’t unroll during cooking.
Pour enough water into a pot to simmer for about a half hour without touching the bottoms of the dolmas. The idea is to steam, not boil, them. Give the water a healthy squeeze of lemon. Place the basket over the simmering water, put the lid on the pot, turn the heat to low and steam for about a half hour. If you were making these with a meat filling or with raw or par-cooked rice, you’d want to look for another recipe. Try the blog at Arabic Food. (This site gets into really specific areas of Arabic cooking, and I intend to try my hand at some of those dishes, now that I know what people eat in Qatar and Bahrain!)
I’d advise against eating dolmas hot, because they tend to fall apart. Room temperature is good, although if they have meat in them, at least eat them while they’re still warm.
Like so many foods you can think of with regional variations–barbecue, chili and pizza all come to mind–stuffed grape leaves have devotees who will argue over what’s most authentic. Should they be made with meat or without? (In Turkey what I just made is called “yalanci,” which means “fake,” because the rice, currants and pine nuts are standing in for meat.) Eaten hot or cold or at room temperature? Steamed or braised or baked? Should they be dipped in a minty yogurt or merely sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice?
It gets way complicated. But in this case we’re using up leaves that were just going to languish on the vine or in the dumpster if we didn’t intervene. This is our private party, and we can make ‘em however we darn well please, right?