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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.