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Dolmas (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

October 21, 2011

I love stuffed grape leaves. I love the tangy and tasty– slightly bitter but mouth-wateringly addictive– combination of olive oil and lemon juice. I love biting through the tightly-wrapped morsels and eating my fill of the soft bundles of rice.

Unfortunately, some recipes seem like better ideas when you start than when you finish (or than when you’re two hours into making them and still not done). But believe me, just because I don’t have high praise for the speediness/success of this recipe doesn’t mean I won’t be trying it again. I just plan on making a few little tweaks next time…

One of those tweaks will be mastering the wrapping. This is no maki-zushi, where you just roll up a tube of seaweed and can leave ingredients hanging out of each end. I think my main problem here was that I wrapped up cylinders that were a little too long and skinny; I should have packed the filling (1-2 tsp. of rice) much tighter, and made shorter and stockier bundles– especially when using the smaller leaves– in order to seal them more tightly. In other words the main problem was that, as the dolmas were simmering, liquid crept in through the corners.

While the flavors all worked well together, especially in a few perfectly-wrapped lucky ones, about 80% of my dolmas tasted watery. (And quite a few of those were literally watery, well oily-watery… Yep, it was just as unappealing as that sounds.)

But I think this watered-down issue could be solved by: 1) rolling shorter and tighter dolmas, as I said above, so no liquid can leak in, and 2) substituting a mild chicken or vegetable broth for the water, to give it a richer flavor.

The 20% of my dolmas that were wrapped tightly enough tasted lovely. So lovely that I’d eaten my fill of them well before they’d cooled down at all, let alone to room temperature. (Also being extra hungry, since they took me nearly two hours to prepare, didn’t help things…).

I will just have to improve my grape-leaf-wrapping skills* over time– something I’m determined to do– before I attempt to serve homemade dolmas as a dinner party appetizer. Really, the nicest part about the whole endeavor was sitting down to a meal of all the stuffed grape leaves I could eat, rather than the lonesome one or two that sometimes appear on the side of combination vegetarian platters at restaurants… if you’re lucky.

* Does anyone have any good dolma-rolling tips?


Dolmas (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
(Adapted from this.)

(Makes around 40 grape leaves; Serves 3-4 as part of a dinner, or 4-8 as an appetizer)

~ 8 oz. grape leaves, in brine (about 40-45 leaves)
~ 2 cups cooked rice (I used Jasmine rice)
~ ½ cup olive oil, divided in half
~ 1 Tbsp. lemon zest
~ 3-4 Tbsp. lemon juice
~ 3-4 Tbsp. fresh chopped mint
~ ⅓ cup pine nuts, finely chopped
~ salt, to taste
~ up to 32 oz. chicken or vegetable broth (use in Step #5 instead of water)
~ ⅓ cup scallions, finely chopped
~ ⅓ cup onion, finely chopped and cooked in olive oil until soft
~ ⅓-½ cup raisins

How to make it:

1. Drain the brine from the grape leaves, then place them in a large heat-proof bowl, and pour in enough boiling water to cover them. Let the leaves soak for around 20 minutes, then rinse under cold running water and drain them again.

2. Heat half of the olive oil (¼ cup) in a small pan on low, then add the cooked rice and stir until it’s well coated with oil. Turn off the heat and add pine nuts, lemon zest, mint, and salt to the rice. Optionally also add scallions, cooked onions, or raisins.


3. Stuff the grape leaves: spread out each grape leaf, with the vein side up and the stem facing towards you. Place 1-2 tsp. of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf, and squeeze the rice to pack it tightly, either with a spoon or with your fingers. Fold the stem end over the filling (or you can carefully remove the stems without tearing the rest of the leaf), then fold the sides of the leaf in, and roll up very tightly– so that liquid will not sneak in when the dolmas are simmering– into a short, thick cylinder.

I should have rolled them shorter and tighter than this one…

4. Place each dolma, seam side down, in a large pan. (Arrange them in a single layer, or separate the layers using extra grape leaves.)

5. Drizzle the lemon juice and the rest of the olive oil over the grape leaves, then pour in enough water or chicken/vegetable broth to cover them. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for about an hour. (Check them again after 30 minutes and 45 minutes to see if you need to add more liquid to keep them covered.)

6. Remove from the burner and let the dolmas cool for 10-15 minutes in the broth, then carefully transfer them, using a slotted spoon, to a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature. They’d be great with pita bread and hummus or yogurt.

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