Demystifying the Dolma

Growing up in Fresno, California, I took stuffed grape leaves for granted as staples at any deli counter. As a kid, I met them eye-level through the display glass with a mix of awe and suspicion. They might be considered a standard dish in many Mediterranean cuisines, but in my mind, all I saw was a dark, glossy green roll, delicately wrapped up and eerily finger-sized.

Depending on who you talk to, they can be called dolmas or sarmas, and the words literally translate to “stuffed things.”

I hadn’t thought about the dolma much until this year, when my daily drive took me past miles of vineyards on the outskirts of Fresno. With the top grape acreage of any county in the United States, that translates to lots of wine, raisin, and table grapes. And while Jan and I often find ourselves enjoying products made from grapes (with wine being the clear winner), there’s another product that comes from these grapevines that we often overlook, the leaves.

Jan has always loved stuffed grape leaves, and likes to try offerings at local markets and sandwich shops in search of the best. He’s even purchased canned stuffed grape leaves, though those left much to be desired. I’ve always found the briny taste of the grape leaves too overwhelming to enjoy them, so tackling this dish was a good challenge for us. And while I knew the results wouldn’t turn out like anyone’s grandmother’s, I hoped they might come in somewhere in between the canned version and the deli counter’s.   


Start with grape leaves in a jar

I went to a Mediterranean market to purchase the grape leaves, which came in a large jar. The grape leaves had to be removed and unfolded carefully, so they would not rip. Because the grape leaves are soaked in brine, I rinsed thoroughly to remove as much extra salt water as I could.

Combining beef, lamb, rice, butter, water, and spices

You can get creative with stuffings, but the classic is rice and meat, and we chose a recipe that had a higher meat to rice ratio. We ground up cuts of beef and lamb in our meat grinder, and our ratio was about two-thirds beef to one-third lamb. The meat is mixed with uncooked rice, which will cook together with the meat once wrapped in the grape leaf.


Carefully wrapping

Rolling them was both fun and tricky, and I had to keep reminding myself that the stuffing would double in size while cooking. If wrapped too tightly, the grape leaf could break during cooking as the filling expands inside. 


Served with beef and lamb meatballs, rice pilaf, and salad

We enjoyed them with a hummus appetizer, lamb and beef meatballs (made with the leftovers of the meat we ground for the dolmas), cucumber and tomato yogurt sauce, and rice pilaf.

And I must say that the stuffed grape leaves were a winner! The cayenne gave the stuffing a bit of a welcome kick, and the meat and rice was perfect, providing just the right balance to the flavor of the grape leaves. Serving with the yogurt dipping sauce took the dolmas up to the next level, and we will definitely be making these again. After seeing them come together from the inside out, I won’t be that skeptical kid at the deli counter anymore. In fact, I might even call myself a fan.


Stuffed grape leaves 

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Jar of grape leaves in brine 

 ½ lb ground beef

 ¼ lb ground lamb

 ½ onion, medium dice

 1/3 cup white rice, uncooked

 2 tablespoons butter

 1 teaspoon tomato paste

 1/8 cup warm water

 1 teaspoon salt

 Black pepper

 Cayenne pepper 

 Dried basil




 Carefully remove the grape leaves from the jar, unfold, and rinse thoroughly. Set aside. In a bowl, combine beef, lamb, rice, butter, tomato paste and salt. Add pinches of black pepper, cayenne, basil, and savory. The last ingredient to be added is the warm water.

Mix the mixture with your hands until combined, then let the mixture rest for a few minutes before rolling in the grape leaves. While the mixture is resting, line the bottom of a pan with grape leaves, to protect the stuffed grape leaves while cooking.

Carefully wrap about one tablespoon of stuffing with one grape leaf. Form a cylinder shape with the stuffing at the base of the grape leaf. Fold in the bottom and sides and carefully wrap into a roll. Place in the pan on top of the grape-leaf-lining, with the point of the leaf down.


Place the stuffed grape leaves atop a bed of grape leaves

Once you’ve used all your stuffing (this recipe makes about 20 dolmas), and filled the pan with a single layer of grape leaves, add enough water to cover them, along with about half a teaspoon of oil. Cook on medium heat for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender. 


Cooking in water, which will boil away

While they are cooking, make the yogurt dipping sauce (see below). After about 20 minutes on the stove, you may have to sacrifice one to test if it’s done. The liquid should have boiled away and you will be left with shiny dolmas that are deeper in color than the uncooked versions.


When done, they're a deep, dark green

For the sauce, you will need about half a cucumber, 1-2 tomatoes, plain yogurt, and lemon juice. Peel the cucumber, cut in half, and remove the seeds with a spoon. Use a cheese grater to shred the cucumber, and place into a bowl. Add diced tomato, about 1 cup of plain yogurt, and about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Stir and refrigerate until ready to serve. Can be served atop the stuffed grape leaves or as a dipping sauce on the side.

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Out to lunch

You’ll probably notice that Jan and I don’t go out to dinner much, preferring to spend most of our evenings at home. But that doesn’t mean we never go out. What we really like is going to lunch, because for some reason, it just feels fun to us to be out and about in the middle of the day.

We especially enjoy trying out lunch specials because they’re the perfect way to sample a bunch of different dishes. At Chinese restaurants, this usually means ordering the “Imperial Special,” and running out of room at the table after pot stickers, soup, salad, chow mein, sizzling beef, sweet and sour shrimp, etc. While I enjoy the food, I find myself feeling overwhelmed and overly stuffed.

Lunch at Wassabi in Fig Garden Village is the perfect balance of lots to try, in the right amount. We were happy to take advantage of the $10 lunch special on Saturday (offered everyday except Sunday, when the restaurant is not open for lunch). There are several options for the special including bento boxes and sushi combinations.

Soup, then salad

I got the box and picked tempura and California roll for my two options. In addition to the items I chose, the lunch came with miso soup, salad, rice, and a Diet Coke (beverage options included in the lunch special are soft drinks or draft beer). Jan chose the sashimi, which also included miso soup, and of course he chose an Asahi beer to go with his meal.

It's obscured by the orchid here, but the sashimi looked beautiful and bright

The service was prompt and friendly, though we took our time as we were the only diners out on the patio that day. I preferred this calm atmosphere to Wassabi’s other location on Herndon and First, but perhaps I’m too old to appreciate sushi chefs in costumes and wigs. With lots of dishes on our plates to sample, everybody was happy.

Reflections From the Plate

It’s been a little over four months since I started writing Our Life in Meals, and it’s begun to take on a life of its own. Initially I thought I would write about the dishes my husband Jan cooked while I sipped wine and took notes. But I wasn’t sitting on the sidelines long before I felt a strong desire to participate. Now I’m doing brazen things like picking and choosing which recipe steps to ignore and demanding more than a two foot wide space of kitchen countertop. Gutsy, I know. Continue reading

Mexican Style Shrimp Cocktail


This week Jan was hard at work perfecting the recipe for a different kind of cocktail, the Mexican style shrimp cocktail, and I was happy to oblige as taste tester. That is, after I had the first, delicious spoonful.
The reason for this: In the past, I was probably guilty of staring at one too many men in hole-in-the-wall taquerias who ordered shrimp cocktail. Not that I was checking these guys out, I was more in awe of what they were eating, and the very fact that they were eating it. Continue reading

Side by side Margarita comparison

Skinny vs. Standard

When I heard someone ordering a “skinny” margarita the other day from the bar, I had to stop and ask the bartender what exactly that was. I learned that it’s a margarita with margarita mix (or sweet & sour) replaced by club soda and lime juice.

Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel has even trademarked her version of this margarita as “The Skinnygirl.” But the basic principles are simple: mixers with no sugar and fresh fruit and liqueurs for flavor.

As I’ve been using club soda to tone down overly sweet drinks for a while now, I knew I’d like this less sweet version of the margarita, but I wondered if others would accept its less sweet taste.

I decided to do a side by side comparison of the skinny margarita verses the standard, with Jan as my second judge. After all, since he’s a guy who uses Coke, ginger ale, and tonic water as his main drink mixers, I could assume he’s less concerned about his sugar (and therefore calorie) intake than I am. So while I might be swayed to like something more because it’s healthier (as I did with the peach ice cream), he would be able to judge purely on taste.

But before making the margaritas, I wanted to share a couple of my drink-mixing tips. First secret: triple sec. This orange-flavored liqueur compliments so many different types of spirits and seems to magically neutralize the strong alcohol flavors of vodka, tequila, and whiskey (the bases of most drinks mixed at my bar). It’s a must-have for a well stocked bar, and you don’t need to go fancy with Cointreau.

Also, I don’t measure anything that goes into a drink; I always eyeball it or use a shot glass to get the correct proportions. For me, this makes drink-mixing more laid back and experimental, and opens up the opportunity discover and create new drinks by chance.

If I’ve got a good ratio/recipe down, I’ll use a shot glass for measuring, so my recipe measures amounts this way (keeping in mind that a standard shot glass is 1.5 ounces). You can buy a 1.5 ounce stainless steel jigger (sometimes also called a pony), but I always use a shot glass because it’s handy and easily cleaned in the dishwasher.

All the ingredients and tools needed

Skinny Margarita

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1 shot of tequila (1.5 oz.)

½ shot of triple sec (.75 oz.)

3 shots of club soda (4.5 oz.)

Juice of half a lime (about 2-3 wedges), and 1 wedge to garnish

Standard Margarita

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1 shot of tequila (1.5 oz.)

½ shot of triple sec (.75 oz.)

3 shots of margarita mix (4.5 oz.)

Juice of 1 lime wedge, and 1 wedge to garnish


Fill glass with ice cubes and add tequila and triple sec. For the skinny margarita, fill the rest of the glass with club soda (it will be about 3 shots, or 4.5 oz. worth) and the juice of 2-3 lime wedges. Stir and enjoy. (Calories: 139. Sugar: 9 grams.)

For the standard, repeat the steps for the skinny, except replace the club soda with margarita mix. (Calories: 297. Sugar: 48 grams. This is using World Classics premium non-alcoholic margarita mix, with 200 calories and 50 grams sugar per 5.8 oz. serving.)


I liked the skinny margarita because I could taste the tequila, helping me avoid the situation of slurping the drink down without realizing how much I was drinking (a very easy thing to do with many “girly” drinks). When sipping on the two side by side, it became apparent that the standard margarita was too sweet.

Jan’s vote was for a combination of the two margaritas: keep the measurements of alcohol the same, but use half club soda/lime juice and half margarita mix. I admitted that was a good compromise, and it did a lot to cut down on the often too-acidic nature of margaritas. But I’m stuck on what to call this margarita–the sort-of-skinny? (Combination of skinny and standard margarita: Calories: 218. Sugar: 29 grams.)

Simple solo supper

When Jan comes back from being away at a fire assignment, he’ll often ask me what I ate while he was gone. It’s a simple enough question, but I’m always embarrassed to answer. See the thing is, I don’t always feel like going to great lengths cooking dinner when it’s just me. Really, I’m lazy. When Jan returns, I’ll go through my list of lunch and dinner dates catching up with friends, or my rundown of what I ate at my dad’s house. 

But I’m really just putting off his question with a bunch of distractions. He cracks up when I finally answer with one word: chicken. 

Chicken ten ways, I call it. 

Or more precisely, Costco rotisserie chicken (and you can’t beat the price at $4.99), cooked and ready to enjoy. There’s no end to all the different meals I can make with it, besides just eating the chicken by itself. I’ll eat the drumstick and thigh the same night I buy it, still often finger-burning-hot by the time I get it home. Then I use the rest for a variety of other meals over the course of a week, including Chinese chicken salad, chicken noodle soup, chicken tacos, and chicken enchiladas. 

The short list of dinner ingredients

I recently shared the first night dinner (when you eat the chicken right away when it is fresh and hot) with my friend Nevin, and she was impressed by the simplicity of it.

That day, I came home from a visit to my dad’s with a bounty of eggplant, squash, tomatoes, figs, and some gourds I have no name for. But for this dinner, I was focusing on the fresh tomatoes. 
From dad's garden

I sautéed some spinach in olive oil and garlic, along with some tomatoes. After plating, I sprinkled the vegetables with some parmesan cheese and enjoyed.   

When I told Jan about this dinner, he only shook his head. On one hand, I think he’s glad my diet hadn’t consisted solely of Cheerios and rocky road ice cream, while on the other, he’s disappointed at my lack of creativity in the kitchen. After all, he had either been eating hearty catered meals at fire camp, or helicoptered-in MREs out in the wilderness (MRE=Meal, Ready to Eat, also known as military rations). With my access to a kitchen full of ingredients, he’d hoped I’d be eating better than him. 

But with this year’s fire season keeping Jan closer to home, somewhere along the way, he started to open his mind up a little more to this Costco chicken. He started brainstorming dishes outside of my usual salads and Tex-Mex, and while he has yet to purchase a chicken on his own, he may be getting close.  

I’m hoping this post will serve as part one in a series about all the great things we can do with a pre-cooked Costco rotisserie chicken, with more semi-lazy dinners and lunches to come.

Delicious chocolate strawberries

I’m starting to get the feeling that summer is winding down, which means stocking up on strawberries while they’re still abundant at the grocery store. However, this also means that I sometimes have more strawberries than I know what to do with. So I made one of my favorite desserts, which I love because it is so simple to make, requires only two ingredients (strawberries and chocolate chips), but feels like a rich treat.

They don’t look as refined as the ones I’ve seen from those Edible Arrangements franchises popping up everywhere lately, but I think their amateur appearance makes the chocolate covered strawberries I made taste even more delicious.

I took fresh strawberries, rinsed them, and patted them dry with paper towels. Since I didn’t have a double boiler, I fashioned my own improvised one by filling a small saucepan about a half-inch high with water and setting a quart-sized Pyrex inside.

I slowly melted a handful of dark chocolate and milk chocolate chips (about 70 percent dark chocolate chips, 30 percent milk chocolate chips) over low-medium heat. The most important step here is not to rush and to keep stirring—don’t leave the chocolate unattended. If you’re doing a small batch, it should be melted quickly.

When the chocolate was melted, I removed the entire pan/Pyrex from the stove top, and used a silicone brush (usually used for brushing barbecue sauce on ribs in our house) to brush the chocolate onto the strawberries.

The chocolate was nearly hardened 10 minutes later, but I did sneak a few while they were still a little warm and melty.