Friday, July 29, 2016

Free Range Friday ~ Dolmas

Since the first time I came out here to the farm where my son lives, I've wanted to use the grape leaves from that stretch a long way down the field for dolmas. 

First thing was to get up early and be in the coolness to pick (cut) the leaves.

This isn't really the way to the grapes but it's one of my
favorite portals on the farm. It really was early though!
Until this year it wasn't hard to keep deferring that desire, with other things to do and places to go. Plus some years being out here when the leaves were basically too far gone for the tenderness needed. But this year would be different, I was going to make dolmas no matter what!

The first experimental batch was basically a bust. My bad, using wild rice that would not cook well (it was the rice's fault, obviously), badly wrapped (grape leaves can be so damn stubborn), the wrong pot (hey, why do they give directions like this!) and some, perhaps a wee bit more than some, impatience on my part (obviously my parents' fault, may they rest in peace).

Some things I did a lot more precisely with the first batch than the second, like tying the leaves in bundles for the blanching process.

So green and bright

So dolmas colored!
This experimental batch was just rice and onions and garlic
Rice not cooked through, ok, it will be fine at the end, right?

So pretty! So deep! So many too loosely wrapped!
Don't do this.
Having learned from the mistakes of others and errant ways of Nature, I was determined to do the next batch right. There was a baby coming and I wanted her to have a grandmother who made dolmas like she was, at least according to a mythical DNA test, part Greek. It worked.

Let us begin again. Round two. This one would be made with basmati rice, ground lamb, mint, a touch of dill, garlic and onions and a few other tidbits thrown to continue to defy the law of following recipes.

Some recipes make a big deal out of the blanching process.
Some say just cover them in warm water.
This time, no rolling and tying, I just put them in a pot of boiling water for about
2 minutes and then into the strainer where they got a cold water rinse. Done.
Love this red onion from the farmer's market, like a giant red scallion

Into the pan to sauté
Almost all the directions say to take some grape leaves, torn ones, unused ones, and line whatever pan you are going to make these in, which sounded smart to me, so I did. This particular recipe also said to put in rings of onions on top of that. I liked the sound of that and did that too.

This time I used a deep, very large skillet. It was MUCH more manageable, but if I'd made dozens I'd have had to rethink this step. Dolmas for Dummies?

Cooking the rice with the aromatics on low,
just long enough to absorb a couple of cups of water
but basmati rice doesn't take long anyway.
Now it was time to play with the lamb, bought also at the farmer's market from a woman sheep farmer, sustainably and lovingly raised (for you veg types, I know that might seem an oxymoron, but it is what it is).

Ground lamb, mint, dill, rosemary, Thai basil
All from our plants here. Even the lamb tree.
Not really.
Some of the leaves were really big, and really tender.
Unusual but it was fun making BIG dolmas.

The put it together station.
I'd just finished and remembered to grab the camera.
The damp wash cloth really helped to keep my hands
from getting totally sticky after getting it off the spoon
and neatly into the leaf, as well as with the folding.
Maybe especially with the folding.

Into the skillet they went with broth and a little olive oil.
You can just use water but I liked the idea of broth.

The plate is to hold them down and make sure the ingredients really cook.
The foil is because I didn't have a lid that big.
I probably cooked it about 35 or 40 minutes. The rice
was already done and got fairly sticky but in a pretty good way.
I think only two or three weren't wrapped tightly enough.
(ok, I heard you think what you just thought; stop it!)
Taking time to enjoy the process made it a better end result
Things I'd do differently. I would definitely spice it up. They tasted great but I think they could have been jazzed up some. Of course, that is my palate, everyone who ate them thought they were pretty damn good just as they were. I'd only cook the rice halfway; though it wasn't bad it would have been better that way. I'm a picky rice snob about my own rice, what can I say?

This is the recipe I used. Sort of.

50 to 60 grape leaves (fresh or jarred)
6 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth
1.5 lbs ground beef (obviously I used lamb)
1 cup white basmati rice
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large onion, cut into large rings
4 cloves of garlic, minced
⅓ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup olive oil, divided
½ tsp all spice (I didn't have allspice, just omitted it)
½ tsp cumin
a pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Of course, as written above, I also added mint, rosemary, basil and dill. I took those idea from other recipes. I think you could put all sorts of things in these; the word dolma simply means stuffed leaf or vegetable. Have fun with it and adjust it to your style. The main thing is that whatever it is needs to be able to be rolled up in the leaf without pokey parts.

1 In a skillet, heat 2Tbsp of the olive oil over medium high heat and sauté the chopped onion and garlic until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the spices and let them sweat for a couple more minutes.

2 In a large bowl, combine the meat, the rice, the onion mixture and the parsley. Mix everything together with your hands until everything is incorporated. Reserve.

3 Drain and rinse the grape leaves.

4 Trim the stems off every grape leaf (I did this when I cut them off the vine) and blanch them in boiling water for 10 minutes (I only did that for about 4 minutes as the leaves were really tender). Drain and reserve.

5 To roll the grape leaves, place a leaf with the vein side up* on your work surface. Add one tablespoon of the filling mixture to the center of the leaf. Fold the edges in and up and roll the grape leaf until it looks like a cigar, tucking the edges under the roll. Proceed with the other leaves until you've run out of filling or leaves. (See blog post for step-by-step pictures!)

6 Line a heavy bottomed pot with (unrolled) grape leaves. On top of that, add the onion rings.

7 Proceed to arrange the stuffed grape leaves in rows, alternating the direction of each layer of rows. (obviously I forgot to do this part. For ease of taking them out again - I used tongs - it would be a help)

8 Fill the pot with the chicken broth (enough to cover the rolls) and the remaining olive oil.

9 Place a plate on the top to prevent the rolls from floating.

10 Cover the pot and bring to a boil.

11 When it boils, lower the heat to low and cook for 40 minutes, until meat is cooked and rice is tender.

12 Remove the rolls from the broth and serve warm or at room temperature.

And I think that's about it. Something I can knock off my bucket list, picking grape leaves and making dolmas. There are a LOT of recipes for this and of course you don't have to pick and prepare your own grape leaves, you can buy that stuff. But I loved knowing these had never been sprayed with anything more than water, good water, and that I learned something new, so if you have access to grape leaves, go for it.
Anything you can do and learn something new, go for it! Life is short, dear readers, and our bucket lists should be long.

Have a fazeless, fearless Friday. Do something flavorful.

*It seems so obvious - vein side up. However as you are going along it is simple to do it the other way by mistake and not notice it until you are putting it in the pan. 

I think it's mainly a presentation thing but it also might be a tight rolling thing too. Of course, this was the day the new granddaughter was slowly coming into the world so I might have been a tad distracted. Which is why I was making the dolmas in the first place. 


  1. Tremendous ! Looks great !

    1. They were! Give them a try sometime!

  2. I've never tried them but now I might have to. They look delicious

    1. Do! And they were. Let me know how it goes, it's so much fun to make them!