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

 Savory

 

 Directions

 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.

The tricky task of judging a rib cook-off

Aussom Aussie's ribs

Jan and I attended Fresno’s first annual rib cook-off this past Saturday, curious to witness a cooking competition outside of Iron Chef America and our own living room. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had one thing on my mind as my stomach growled driving toward downtown Fresno: ribs!    

We arrived around lunchtime to reasonable-sized crowds and weather temperatures nearing 100 degrees. As I got out of the car, I could smell the ribs cooking, and I was anxious to see what lie ahead. As we walked closer, we could see the competitors, crowds, and massive amounts of meat being smoked and grilled. From various parts of the country and the world, serious barbecue competitors had gathered to show off their skills. Each entrant had two-story-tall displays proclaiming all their awards in various cooking competitions.    

I could tell these guys were serious. Not only did they have their competition trophies lined up on tables, reflecting the light of the sun, they had giant smokers on wheels with teams of people cooking. I’d heard a little about the competitive barbecue circuit from Jan’s former neighbors and the owners of Clovis’ QN4U, (who were the local entrants in the cook-off and were recently featured on TLC’s Pitmasters), but now I could finally see for myself how competitive these things could get.   

Mountains of meat
Trying to choose

Since we were aiming for our own taste-testing, Jan and I each got in line at two different places. Swayed by their banners proclaiming “Featured on Food Network,” and “As Seen on the Travel Channel,” I chose Australian barbecue champions Aussom Aussie, while Jan went for the more traditional Johnson’s of Virginia. It was difficult to choose whose ribs to sample, since we knew we couldn’t try them all. I might have been willing to wait in line for a rib from each vendor, had I not been feeling like a barbecued pig myself on the hot asphalt.    

While the pace of the line moved just like the slow rib-smoking process, I anticipated my lunch, hoping I had chosen wisely. And as I neared the front of the line for a good look at the Aussom Aussie himself mopping ribs with barbecue sauce, The Fresno Bee captured me as I braved big gusts of smoke (link to the Bee’s gallery here). There was no way I wasn’t leaving without smelling like ribs. I felt like the girl in the Taco Bell commercial who carries around bacon in her purse in an effort to attract men. I smelled like barbecue perfume and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.    

Photo by John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Jan and I met up at the picnic tables under the trees, where we got a break from the heat. My first bite was from the Australians, followed by three more bites, one per accompanying dipping sauce. The ribs had excellent flavor, and the original sauce was a good balance of bold, sweet, and spicy flavors, and my top choice over the other two (hot! and raspberry chipotle).     

I sampled the Johnson’s rib next, which was also tasty, but I found the hickory smoke flavor  overwhelming. I know some people like the smoke, and even go to the lengths of adding artificial smoke flavoring to their own ribs to achieve it, but I find the taste of smoke distracting from the pork flavor that makes ribs such a unique treat. I was also disappointed by the sides, something I find a common problem at barbecue joints. With so much attention paid to “The Sauce” and “The Meat,” it’s sad when the simple dishes like potato salad and baked beans get ignored. I peeked into the mobile kitchens of several competitors, and saw that they were using salad from a tub and beans from a can. My take is, if you have a simple menu of basically meat and sides, everything on that menu better be a generous and delicious portion made from scratch. But I’m getting sidetracked from the ribs.  

Johnson's ribs

As we ate under the shade, Jan and I offered our own verdict. And the winner was…well, no one. We agreed that we prefered homemade ribs on the grill, not because we’re biased, but because neither of the ribs sampled delivered on the texture. Being barbecued by pros, I expected tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and while the ribs sampled weren’t tough, the meat certainly could have been softer.  

We stood in line once again, this time at Cowboys BBQ of Texas, so we could bring a promised plate of ribs to a friend unable to attend the cook-off. (We later got a report that those were excellent, but we didn’t taste them for ourselves.)   

We never found out who officially won the cook-off, or even the criteria for how the ribs were judged. Maybe that was for the best. After all, it seems like everyone has their own take on what makes a good rib, and even more so, a good plate of barbecue. Despite our nitpicking over the details, we had a great time, ate some good food, and would welcome a chance to attend any kind of cook-off in the future. Who knows, maybe next time in our backyard.