My love affair with traditional Middle-Eastern cuisine needs no introduction. There is not a photo on Ottoleghi’s feed that I haven’t stopped and drooled at for minutes if not hours. I mark the first time I made shakshouka as a milestone while mastering the art of creamy hummus was an innate and earnest desire. The first-ever cookbooks that I received as gifts were Jerusalem, Plenty, and Plenty More (call it synchronicity). Unfortunately, I’ve never personally made it to the culturally rich lands of good food, bad blood, and endless schisms. Yet, I have been fortunate enough to find native friends, who taught me a thing or two about their ethnicity and cuisine, along the way. It doesn’t matter where I am, good food friends always find me (or I find them myself).
Talking taste, middle-eastern cuisine often brings together an array of contrasting aromas and flavors that remain second-to-none. Bitter olives, crunchy filo sweets doused in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup, creamy sesame butter dreams called tahini, slow-cooked stews, strained yogurt labneh with cucumber garlic, za’atar and sesame on top of everything, bright and lemony sumac berry powder, wild thyme, nuts, nuts and more nuts, the freshness of aromatic herbs, the roasted whiff of burnt eggplants, brined and pickled vegetables, apricots and sultanas, street shawarmas and kebabs, secret spice blends such as Bahārāt and Ras-el-Hanout that serve the same purpose as does Garam Masala in Indian cuisine.
Stuffed grape leaves are fairly common throughout the Middle East and in Turkey. A Greek, while acknowledging the fact, will suggest that it was because the Greeks brought them to the region. Later, it has been suggested, the Byzantines refined and spiced the preparation and filled not only grape leaves but also the leaves from hazelnut, mulberry and fig trees. When viewed from a food anthropology lens, it is hard to decipher and draw boundaries between the different countries of this conflicted transcontinental region. Alas, political turmoils and insurgencies never cease to exist, yet there prevails a common thread of technique and flavors that weaves all the Middle-Eastern states together in an intangible harmonious bond. As cultures go to war for identity, food remains the epitome of unity in diversity (and dispute).
The stuffed wine leaves of Greece, called dolmathes, are filled largely with minced lamb, a bit of rice, and touches of such other fresh ingredients as crushed mint, fennel or parsley leaves, dill, garlic, pine nuts, or currants. In Turkey, they are dolma, in Iran dolmeh, and their basis is more rice than meat. They will invariably also contain pine nuts and currants. Throughout the Middle East vine leaves and leaves of spinach, Swiss chard, and cabbage are served stuffed. I’ve never been a die-hard fan of dolmas. Rolling out stuffed wine leaves from scratch can be fairly tedious. But in hindsight, the utter romance of picking tender grape leaves, from your kitchen garden, amidst the freshness of spring, calls for it.
And so I began my dolmades endeavor. I got in touch with my Turkish friend and asked her to share a reliable and traditional dolma recipe. I had faith in my source but yet was apprehensive about the unknown. The challenge I foresaw was rolling out the stuffed wine leaves into perfect little glossy green cylinders. Yet again, more than the recipe, I needed the technique. But after a quick glance at a few youtube rolling tutorials, I able to eventually sail through. In the end, twas’ all a mix of ugly delicious, and picture-perfect.
The first step is to get your hands on the leaves – you have to be mindful of picking the young leaves which are tender and light green in color. Avoid the darker ones as they result in rolls that are fibrous and difficult to chew. I learned this rule after the first time I made dolmades with my garden grapevine. Alternatively, in case you don’t have a grapevine growing in your home or anywhere near you – some supermarkets also sell them preserved under brine in jars.
Dolmadaki is an elaborate recipe. While the rice is cooked in three parts with an abundance of fresh aromatic herbs and dried fruits. Marinated, brined, and cooked with lemon juice and bitter olive oil. Sweet caramelized onions play an important role to balance out the already sour and briny taste of the wine leaves. When stuffing the grape leaf, make sure to only use about a tablespoon of stuffing. This will make it easier to wrap and seal the grape leaf. It is also imperative to anticipate that the rice will finish cooking within the rolled leaves, hence giving enough room for this is fundamental. Rest follow the recipe, and also eventually go with the flow.
Turkish Recipe for Dolmas:
Preparation time: 30 mins, plus 20 mins soaking
Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus 10 minutes resting
40 fresh wine leaves
2 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoon lemon juice
For the stuffing:
2 tbsp olive oil
600 g onions, finely sliced
250 g medium grain basmati rice
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1/2 bunch dill
1 tsp dried mint
(I instead used a mix of fresh basil, mint, and sage)
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
Soak the wine leaves in 1-liter water hot water for 10 mins, then drain and set aside. Soak the rice for the stuffing in 500 ml warm water with 1/2 teaspoon salt for 20 minutes, then rinse.
To make the stuffing:
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat, add the onions. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring continuously. Add the rice and cook for 15 minutes, stirring continuously. Add the rice and cook for 5 minutes. Finely slice the parsley and dill and then add to the pan with the dried mint, sugar, black peppercorns, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat. Divide the stuffing among the wine leaves. Spread each vine leaf out on a work surface, veins facing up. Spread a piece of stuffing in a line along the longer side. Roll the leaf around the stuffing for one full turn, then fold in the sides and continue rolling.
Arrange the dolmas in a wide saucepan previously lined with large wine leaves. It is important to prepare a layer of hard big vine leaves to prevent the delicate dolmas from burning while cooking. Add the oil, lemon juice, and 500 ml water. Cover most of the surface area with the plate (because we don’t want the dolmas to jump open while on the stove). Cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes over medium heat. Reduce the heat, cover, and cook for 40 minutes, rest for 10 minutes before serving.