Rainy Day Dolmas

We’ve had some crazy weather here the last few days.  What appears like a good window for an outdoor workout lasts only long enough for you to put one foot out the door and feel raindrops accompanied by 15 miles per hour wind.  On Saturday, I opted to ride indoors on the bike trainer for the first time since being in Washington.  Rather than watch TV while spinning like I used to in our basement in Tacoma, I stared out into our backyard and realized something—we could make our own dolmas.

When we moved in, there were no leaves on this vine.  Slowly, bits of green appeared, and then we began to see green grapes.  We sporadically tasted them, but they were always bitter.  Then one day, I saw they had turned red, and felt like the new kid who had never seen a grape vine before.  Once the grapes were actually ready, the birds promptly ate them all.  So, for the most part, the grape vine has just been for decoration.

While I often eat dolmas (or dolmades), I had never seen anyone make his or her own.  It didn’t even occur to me that those leaves could be more than decoration, until I was staring at them on the trainer for over an hour.  Once the idea hit, and I was looking for recipes on the iPad before I even got off the bike (the workout might have lost some intensity here…).

A few things I learned from this quick Google search:

  1. The number of recipes for dolmas might rival the number of recipes for chili.
  2. Most people buy the leaves already prepared, because of availability and to ensure they aren’t using leaves sprayed with pesticides.
  3. If you are using fresh leaves, early summer is the best time to gather them–perfect timing, for me.

After figuring out what I wanted my leaves to be stuffed with, I was granted with another rainy day yesterday to try my hand at making them.  It took more time than I had expected, so I’m glad I waited until I had several hours to spend on it.  In between rain showers, I went out and picked 20 leaves.

I brought them inside and soaked them in cold water.  I think it’s better to make the stuffing first, then prep the leaves, so that’s how I’ll order my instructions.

The recipe that follows is an adaptation of the one found in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and the one found on Ellen’s Kitchen, a food blog that turned up in my search.

STUFFING:

  • 1 large yellow onion, diced – should yield 2 cups
  • 3 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup of rice – I went with organic short grain brown rice
  • 1 tsp of all-spice
  • 1 tsp of cinnamon
  • 2 tsp of chopped fresh mint leaves (one of the easiest herbs to grow)
  • 3 tsp of parsley
  • juice from one lemon
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup of water or stock

In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil, then the onions.  In 5 min., once the onions are sweating, add the rice, spices, and water.  Cook until the rice starts to absorb some of the liquid, which will vary depending on the rice you use.  For white rice, 10 minutes should do, but for brown rice, cook for 20 minutes longer.  Once it’s ready, transfer the mix to a large bowl and add the herbs and lemon juice. Set aside while you prep your leaves.

Using a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to boil and dissolve one cup of salt.  While waiting for water to boil, take a large bowl and fill with a few ice cubes and a couple cups of water.  Once brine is ready, put the leaves in the boiling pot, ten at a time.  Leave each batch in there for a minute or two—until you see them start to change color—then carefully remove them with a large, flat spatula, and place them in the bowl with ice water.  Once cool, separate the leaves, and use a towel or paper towel(s) to dry them off.  Cut off any part of the stem that might still be attached.

Now you’re ready to stuff the leaves.  Place a leaf bottom-side up on a flat surface. Using a regular spoon, scoop a spoonful of the stuffing and place at the bottom where the stem was attached.  Fold the (right or left-side) bottom leaf away from you.  Repeat on the other side.  Fold again on the original side across your body.  Repeat on the other side.  Now carefully, roll the stem end towards the tip end, until no loose ends appear.  Don’t roll too tightly as the rice will expand further.  Make adjustments as necessary.  Place roll on a plate, seam-side down.  Save any torn or extra leaves for lining the pan you’ll use to finish cooking the dolmas.

Once you’ve made as many dolmas as you want, take out an appropriate sized pan for the number of leaves you have (I used a 3 qt., non-stick sauce pan), and line the pan with any left over leaves.  Carefully nestle the dolmas, putting all your ugly rolls on top and cover with a heavy plate to prevent the dolmas from unraveling.  Cover with water or any stock on hand.  Bring to a simmer, then lower heat and cover until done—which will be when most of the liquid you put in is absorbed.  Mine ended up taking about an hour and 15 min.  However, if you use leaves from a jar and white rice, I suspect you won’t need more than 45 minutes.  When you think they might be done, take one of your ugly dolmas out with tongs and cut into it (don’t test your good-looking ones, you’ll want to keep those intact).  Either keep cooking, or take off the stove depending on if the rice is done or not.  Set aside and make your sauce.

For my sauce, I had no lemon on hand, so I went with a feta-yogurt base.  I used some garlic chives, thai basil leaves, and cilantro from the garden, and put those in my mini-food processor with a clove of garlic, about 2 ounces of feta cheese, ½ cup of fat-free plain yogurt, and ¼ cup of my good olive oil.  Blend and serve with your rolls.

As frustrating as the rain can be, sometimes I’m grateful for a reason to stay inside and work on a fun project like making dolmas from scratch.  I’ll definitely make them again, but I’ll probably use leaves in a jar since the ones I used ended up being chewier than I would have liked (I think I picked the leaves too late in the season)—a fact well-hidden by a very tasty dressing.  ;-)

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