Dolma, dolmeh, sarma or dolmades (plural) are fabulous little stuffed vegetable rolls, the most popular being those wrapped in grape or cabbage leaves. Thought to have originated in the Middle East and adapted by surrounding regions including the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia, Central Asia, both Turkey and Greece like to lay claim to its origin. Modern day dolmades are readily accepted as one of the shining stars of ‘Mediterranean cuisine’. Dolmades are a classic example of regional and historical adaptation, utilizing whatever vegetables, grains, spices and scraps of meat that were readily available. Although the vegetarian versions are referred to as fake or lean dolma, there is nothing fake about the tangy flavor of these bite-size morsels, made with fresh dill, pine nuts and lemon. The perfect finger food appetizer (mezze) or side dish, dolmades are a favorite party or picnic food, as they can be made a day or two ahead and store well in the refrigerator. The added bonus is that they are gluten-free.
Preparing the filling only takes 15-20 minutes, once the pine nuts are toasted, the onions chopped and everything has been measured out (mise en place). After sautéing the onions until softened, the uncooked rice is added, cooking and stirring until it is toasty smelling. Toasting the rice while coating it with oil is thought to enhance the flavor and keep the rice from disintegrating, but I’m not sure if there is any scientific proof behind these claims. Still, I like toasting the rice before adding the broth, with the notion that it does add to the flavor of the rice. The rice is not yet fully cooked when the remaining ingredients and seasonings are added, as it will cook completely during the second cooking, when wrapped in the grape leaves.
The grape leaves are boiled for a few minutes before wrapping to soften them up a bit. After boiling, pat them dry, trim off any stem nubs, for easier rolling and lay them out flat. They will vary in size, so I like laying them out in graduating size, largest to smallest.
Filling and wrapping the leaves is quite easy and goes fairly quickly, once you get the hang of it. Having everything set up and an open, flat surface to work on will also speed up the process. The amount of filling will depend upon the size of the leaf, but a measured tablespoon is the average amount. Most important is that they are not wrapped too tightly, as the rice will expand as it cooks. If wrapped too tightly, the expanding rice will tear through the leaf wrapping. Place the leaf flat, vein side up, on the flat surface. Place a rounded mound of filling at the base of the leaf, just above where the stem attaches to the leaf. Lightly elongate the mound horizontally, into a roll shape. After folding both sides of the leaf towards the center, loosely roll the enclosed filling upward, towards the tip of the leaf, tucking the outer edges in, towards the center, as you roll. When completely wrapped, gently press the tip of the leaf into the roll to seal and place tip end down on a flat surface. Repeat with the remaining filling and leaves.
The filled rolls should fit snugly, seam-side down, in a single layer, in a dutch oven or thick bottom pan for their final simmer in the broth, oil and lemon juice. The liquid should come at least three-quarters of the way up the sides of the rolls. Placing a lid or heat proof plate that is slightly smaller than the dutch oven/ pan, directly onto the rolls, will help to keep the rolls in place while cooking. Glass pyrex dish lids work perfectly for this.
They should be deliciously tender and beautifully plump when done. Although we always eat a couple while still warm, we like them best completely cooled. Homemade dolmades are so much better than the store bought. The flavor is fresh, tangy and unique and so worth the effort of making them. Whenever we serve them at a party, there are never any left over – they’re that good!
We like serving the dolmades with a little greek yoghurt mixed with crushed garlic, minced fresh dill and lemon juice. Enjoy!