I think almost every culture or group has a recipe to create some relatively time-consuming, and much anticipated dish to share on special occasions. Perhaps for you it’s tamales, a timpano or a croquembouche. For us, it’s dolma.
My husband taught me to make dolma and it’s our go-to special occasion dish. We used to have an annual autumn party to which people from all parts of our very big city would come to feast with us. The third year we had this soiree I called some friends, who typically drove an hour to get to us, and invited them to the party. Their response was, “I don’t know, it’s kind of a long drive and…oh wait, are you making the dolma? We’ll be there!”
This is time-consuming but not difficult and is a great way to while away a weekend afternoon. This recipe makes several days worth, which you’ll want when you factor in the flavor and the labor involved.
Equipment you’ll need includes:
one very large or two smaller dutch ovens
something to use to core vegetables. (A peeler or thin, double-edged serrated knife is good and a grapefruit spoon will do in a pinch.)
a food processor or blender
some heavy plates to weigh down the dolma
5 pounds of 80% lean ground beef (you can substitute ground turkey if you don’t eat red meat)
3 cups uncooked basmati rice
a dozen roma tomatoes
8-10 large onions (whichever kind you like)
1 quart jar of grape leaves (if you get these off your own vines, blanch them briefly in boiling salted water to make them pliable)
Tamarind sauce (if you can only get the paste, reconstitute it with some hot water to form a syrupy consistency
about a half cup of some kind of biryani spice (I personally like Penzey’s Turkish Spice or Moroccan Spice Mix for this)
1 small can tomato paste
4-6 Tablespoons of salt and 2-3 Tablespoons of ground black pepper
5-6 very thin bone-in, lamb or beef shoulder chops for the bottom of the pan (not necessary but adds that little something extra)
enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your pan
The first order of business is to prepare the vegetables. Cut the bottom and top off the large onions and remove the stringy outside layer. Cut a slit on one side of the onion from the center to the edge, then begin to pry the onion apart into individual circular layers. (Think of your onion as a set of those stacking matroshka dolls to take apart.) When you get to the centers of the onions that are too small to pry apart, drop them in the food processor.
Next, take the roma tomatoes and cut the tops almost all the way off, leaving enough skin and flesh to keep the top and base attached, but still open the lid. Scoop out the center connecting ribs, seeds and liquid into the food processor with the onion centers, leaving only the part of the flesh that is attached to the skin. Think of it as you would if you scooped the yolk out of a hard boiled egg but left the white behind in the shell.
Finally, pour the grape leaves from the jar into a colander, rinse off the brine and let dry. Jarred grape leaves have about a half inch of stem attached. You’ll want to cut that off.
(Optional additions: you can also hollow out peppers, zucchini or eggplant for this dish if you like, but must at least include the onions, tomatoes and grape leaves. If you’re a vegetarian, leave out the meat and use tofu or seitan instead.)
Next prepare the filling. Wash the rice until the water runs clear instead of cloudy. Don’t cook it, just dump it into a large bowl. Next add the 5 lbs. of meat. Whazz together the onion and tomato innards in the food processor into a slightly chunky puree and pour that over the meat and rice. Salt and pepper liberally, then begin to mix the ingredients together with your hands until well incorporated. Mix in the biryani spice until well incorporated. (If you want to know if this mixture is seasoned properly, you can take a small pinch and touch it against the tip of your tongue. If you taste salt and spice, then it’s seasoned well. If this grosses you out, just use the measurements provided.)
Now it’s time to stuff and stack the veg. You want to lightly pack your individual veggies with meat (full but not jammed in there) then place your stuffed veg very tightly together in the pot. Because you’re using uncooked rice that will expand as you cook, this technique will help the finished dolma keep their shape. The onions get stuffed so the cut edges of your circles meet and the top and bottom are leveled off. Tomatoes get stuffed to the top of their cut edge so their lids fit flat on top. To stuff grape leaves, put the top (flat side) of the leaf down on your board, then place a tablespoon or two of the mixture at the stem end of the back of the leaf, leaving at least an inch of uncovered leaf on the left and right. Fold the left and right sides together, then roll from the stem end to the tip. (this is similar to the technique you use to roll a towel or a sleeping bag.) It should look like a short cigar or a very small green burrito.
When I have thin shoulder chops I put them on the bottom of the pan. When I don’t, the stuffed onions go right on the bottom of the pan, flat side down. Remember to pack them together tightly. The next layer is the tomatoes and I tend the use the stuffed grape leaves to fill in blanks between them, kind of like the mortar between rocks on a wall. Leave at least two inches of room between the top layer of stuffed veg and the top of the pan.
Once the veg are all stuffed and placed, put the pot on the stovetop. In a separate bowl, mix together the jar of tomato paste, an equal amount of tamarind paste, and a cup and a half of boiling water. Pour this liquid mixture over the dolma, then weigh the whole thing down with some plates and put the lid on the pot. Start at medium high heat until the mixture comes to a boil and the veg starts to give off theirjuices, which will eventually rise to a level about even with the top of the veg. If the juices don’t rise this far, add a little more hot water to get that liquid height. Turn the mixture down to low and simmer for about an hour, which is enough time for the meat and the rice to plump up and cook through. Turn the pot out onto a very large platter and serve with a side sauce of tzazik or greek yogurt with some salt and minced garlic to taste mixed in. This serves 10 hearty eaters or 20 grazers.