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Dolma - Delight in Grape Leaves

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Many times I heard about this dish and saw how to make it in cooking shows, but never endeavoured to cook  it myself. Why? The answer is simple: grape leaves that are used in this recipe are not your regular easily available product, and I do not grow grapes in my garden. What a pity. But during my last visit to a Russian market I ran into pickled grape leaves. One can use either fresh or pickled leaves, so I grabbed one of the brands and hurried home eager to try it.
This experiment could be called a success with one exception. The grape leaves should be very young. The leaves I had couldn't boast this, and were somewhat chewy. Otherwise the dish was unexpectedly satisfying and unusual. I had a feeling that this dish could be served somewhere far away from my home in some exotic place. The vinous aroma of the leaves filled with fresh lamb, greens, and spices produced unbelievably pleasant  bouquet. It reminded me of my childhood summers in the Crimea, soft chatter of the Black Sea waves and shore pebbles, and the delectable fumes of local cuisine.

What you need:
Pickled  grape leaves (about 50)
1.5 Lb ground lamb
1/2 cup rice, preboiled
1 yellow onion, minced or grated
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
Parsley, finely chopped
Cilantro, chopped (optional)
Sour cream, about 1 cup
Nutmeg, ground, a few pinches
Black pepper
Broth (3+ cups)

Mix thoroughly lamb, rice, onion, 2/3 of garlic , 2/3 of parsley (reserve the rest of garlic and parsley for the sour cream sauce), salt,  pepper, and nutmeg.
Sort grape leaves, reserving the biggest to cover the bottom of the sauce pan and to separate layers of rolls. I used a rather big shallow dish, so there were only two layers.
Spread a leaf on a cutting board, scoop some meat with a teaspoon, and wrap neatly in a tight roll.

Cover the bottom of your pan with grape leaves. Place rolls in one layer close to one another, cover with leaves again. Repeat another layer of rolls, and cover with leaves. If your pan is smaller in diameter and taller, make more layers, separate each with leaves. The last layer should be covered to hold a plate. The plate is used as a weight preventing the rolls from floating around when they boil. Cover with broth, put a plate on the surface, cover with lid, and  put on high heat. Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium, and boil for about 1 hour. Watch that broth covers all rolls completely. If not enough liquid, add some boiling water.
For the sauce, mix well sour cream, garlic, and greens. When serving dolma, garnish with a dollop of the sauce.

Dolma means anything wrapped, and can be either with meat or without it. Grape leaves are used for cooking probably in every country where grape vines grow. This recipe is actually an Armenian way to cook dolma. You can try to make a vegetarian version with rice and veggies, it's just a matter of personal preferences.
For better results try to find a specialty store where they sell fresh young grape leaves. Cover leaves with boiling water and let stand for 10 minutes, then use. I will try other brands of pickled leaves until I find quality leaves. The dish could have been so much better if leaves were tender. Of course, young leaves are smaller, and one has to spend more time wrapping, but it is well worth it.
If you want your sauce to be more liquidy, add some water or kefir for desired consistency.
In my recipe cilantro is optional, but its flavor goes perfectly well with this dish. A glass of rich red wine will make your gustatory experience more exciting and even adventurous. You will imagine Greek dances, Armenian melodies, and starry sky near a warm sea...

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