My friend Muna is well-known as a couturiere, but few are aware that she is as talented in the kitchen as she is in the sewing room. That same creative force that finds an exquisite fabric and fashions it into a standout ball gown finds its way into her dolmas (Turkish for “stuffed thing”.)
I first sampled those delectables when I helped serve at a party in her home a couple of years ago.
Her stuffed grape leaves were delicate wraps encasing a lemony herbed rice, but it was her stuffed onions, caramel-sweet, bursting with that same intense filling that kept me greedily circling back to the buffet. I couldn’t help myself. I rationalized this rapacious behavior as a cook’s curiousity–hmm…what’s in this dish–but it was more than that. They were addictively delicious.
After the sixth or seventh loop around the dolmas platter, clearly I was not curious–just hoggish—and had to stop. I pulled Muna aside, and pleaded,
“I must know how to make these.”
Muna was breezy, “Sure, I’ll teach you. I love to share my recipes.”
At last, I learned from the Dolmas Maestra. I recently helped her give a cooking class in a friend’s home. (And, it’s no surprise, there are other specialties in her repertoire worth sharing–more to come!) It’s always exciting to learn about new ingredients, new combinations of flavors, new cooking techniques. Muna is generous that way, so now to spread the fruits of that generosity for you to enjoy.
Stuffed Grape Leaves and Onions (Dolmas)
2 cups Basmati Rice, rinsed 2-3 times
3 stalks Celery, finely chopped
5 medium Onions: cut top and root end off each, slice lengthwise almost halfway to the heart of the onion and parboil until the onion can be easily pulled apart into stuffable pieces. Of the 5, take 1 whole and the hearts of the remaining 4, and chop finely.
1 large Tomato, finely chopped
2 big bunches fresh Italian Parsley, finely chopped
5 cloves Garlic, minced
Juice from 4 large Lemons (almost 1 cup)
1 T. dry Mint
1 T. Dillweed
1 ½ T. Tamarind Paste
1 small can Tomato Paste
½ cup Olive Oil
Jar of Grape Leaves: rinse and dry the leaves, then de-stem
Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add finely chopped garlic, onions, celery, tomatoes, parsley and saute for a few minutes. Stir in rinsed rice, lemon juice, mint, dillweed, salt, pepper, tamarind and tomato pastes. Continue stirring and cooking until all the ingredients are well combined and the rice is well coated. Mixture is partially cooked.
Stuff the onions first.
Cut each grape leaf in half, down the center. Place a spoonful of rice mixture into the middle of each piece and roll up neatly; the leaves will be tight, but open on each end.
Layer in a Dutch oven or deep skillet (first onions, then grape leaves)and put a plate on top to press down on the rolled up pieces.
Add a little water.
Cook for the first 10 minutes on high, then simmer for one hour.
Cool slightly, and serve. Makes 25 stuffed onion pieces and 50 stuffed grape leaves.
When assembling the ingredients, you’ll notice one uncommon element– Tamarind Paste–which this curious cook could never have discerned and what indeed makes this dish extraordinary. Its particular tart/sweet pulp is also found in chutneys and more commonly known sauces like Worcestershire and Pickapeppa. I bought it at an international market, K&S, here in Nashville.
Dried mint leaves and fresh lemon juice are also key.
Muna rinses the basmati rice–at least twice–to remove any excess starch. The benefits are two-fold: Rinsed rice is more receptive to the flavors of accompanying ingredients and will steam up in less liquid.
Rather than wrapping the filling in the center of each leaf–the traditional method– Muna splits each leaf up the spine and rolls the filling up, cigar-fashion. “It makes a big difference.” she says, “the leaves cook more tender and the rice mix has more flavor. And, don’t worry, the filling won’t fall out.”
Using a lightly oiled Dutch oven, layer the bottom with the stuffed onions first, which buffer the grape leaves from searing onto the bottom of the pot and infuse them with their sweetness.
Only a small amount of water is needed. Muna weighs the top with a dinner plate. “The plate on top is my mother’s trick. She also taught me that it is best to cook it on high heat for the first ten minutes. That high heat sears the onions. Then reduce it to low and just leave it alone for almost an hour.”