Briny, lemony and pleasantly mushy all at once, dolmas are one of my favorite Middle Eastern treats. A staple on meze platters, dolmas are often found cozying up to hummus, tabbouleh and pita. They’re also available at well-stocked grocery stores in cans and jars, but I prefer dolmas that are freshly made and stocked in the prepared foods section. Fresh dolmas offer a pleasant textural resistance in the form of brined grape leaves, before yielding to a soft mix of short-grain white rice, lots of lemon juice, and herbs and spices. Currants and/or pine nuts are not unheard of, but a traditional dolma adheres to a reserved palette of green grape leaf and white rice.
This past December, I came into a wealth of grape leaves. The morning after a lovely wedding in Los Gatos, I walked out of our hotel to a farmers market situated just across the street. While the produce and artisanal products were largely similar to what I see at farmers markets 40 miles north, I was surprised to see large glass jars filled with leafy green bundles and greenish brine. Delicately wrapped in kitchen twine, each of the three bundles held a good dozen or so meaty grape leaves. I purchased a jar along with some heirloom carrots and goat cheddar, and packed away my goods for the drive home.
I experimented with the first bundle of leaves, chopping them up and adding them to scrambles and grain salads. I even roasted some under a chicken with potatoes and carrots. I knew, though, that I’d have to leave a number of them alone in anticipation of trying my hand at dolmas. I’d been meaning to use up a jar of wild rice, so I figured I’d go way off the beaten path and add all sorts of irreverent ingredients: dried cherries, toasted pine nuts, and fresh mint and parsley.
Since all the wild rice I’ve ever seen is long-grain, I devised an interesting workaround to achieve the homogenously mushy texture I associate with dolmas. Before cooking the rice, I blitzed it in my blender (which has a dry blade container for grinding grains*). This yielded a mix of very fine (even a bit powdery) and short-grain wild rice pieces. When cooked, the texture of this wild rice ‘porridge’ mimics that of dolma rice, and the broken grains eagerly soak up the rest of the filling’s fresh flavors.
Of special mention is grape leaf preparation. You can buy grape leaves in the same aisle as jarred olives and pickles, or, if you’re lucky, at the farmers market. Since they’re preserved in salty brine, they can be salty like the sea. Taste them to decide your next steps: mildly-salty grape leaves may require nothing more than total restraint with the salt in their filling; salty grape leaves should be soaked in hot water for about half hour; and super-salty specimens may need a 15-20 minute simmer in a deep saucepan of water. Some people prefer to steam their dolmas after rolling, but I found this step unnecessary for my rendition as I prefer a little bite to my grape leaves.
Dolmas look like neat little Middle Eastern spring rolls. Ideally, their tightly sealed folds hug a perfect cylinder of filling. Ha! Some of my early dolmas resembled square parcels, and even once I got the hang of rolling down I relegated more than a few to the don’t-serve-to-dinner-guests camp thanks to zealous attempts at over-filling and subsequent gaping seams. Stick with it and you’ll end up with a stack of perfect little Middle Eastern spring roll lookalikes that are more than worth the effort.
*If you don’t have a dry blade container, I’d be hesitant to use the regular blender container. This can dull the blades in no time. Instead, try your food processor. No food processor? Cook the rice whole and then chop it up on a cutting board. It won’t be quite the same, but on the plus side you won’t destroy your blender!