Thursday, November 21, 2013

Stuffed Grape Leaves ("Dolmas") from Well Fed 2

I've seen a few different recipes for paleo dolmas floating around and in cookbooks, but I've never had the courage to try any of them.  I knew when I saw Melissa Joulwan had included Stuffed Grape Leaves, a.k.a. Dolmas, in Well Fed 2 that it was time to face my dolma fears.  I was curious about this recipe both from a technique/difficulty aspect and a taste aspect.  Due to a tragic mistake on my part, I ended up making this recipe two times and learned some lessons that I can now share with you if you are new to dolma making.  

I gathered my ingredients and got to work.  

The recipe calls for Melissa's Lebanese Seven- Spice blend.  I mixed this up before hand while I was waiting for something else to cook.  It took about 3 minutes to measure and mix all the spices together. Easy.  The next step is to soak the grape leaves in hot water so that they soften.  Be careful removing the rolled leaves from the jar as they rip easily.  Don't try to pry them apart until they've soaked.  

Next up, make some cauliflower rice.  I'm glad that Melissa provided a weight for the cauliflower as neither of the cauliflower heads I bought to make this recipe weighed more than a pound total.  If I'd just used half, there wouldn't have been much rice.  

Before moving on to make the meat paste, I put my pine nuts and raisins into a skillet to toast.  Both of these ingredients are optional.  

While the raisins and pine nuts toasted, I loaded up my food processor.  I  chopped up my onion roughly and minced the garlic into the processor bowl to make sure that theses elements would be incorporated well into the paste.  

And this is where my tragic flaw occurred during my first attempt at making the dolmas.  I wasn't thinking and as I had bought just enough pine nuts for the recipe, I got in in my mind that everything was pre-measured, like the Lebanese Seven-Spice blend.  Um no.  

Without thinking I dumped the entire batch of the blend into the food processor.  The next morning when I tasted them,  they were awful.  Even then it did not dawn on me what I'd done.  I figured it could just be me, so I packed them up to take to work.  While sitting in traffic, it finally dawned on me what I'd done.  Just plain stupid.  I'm sure my coworkers should be glad I got stuck in traffic.  Make sure to measure your spice blend!    

While processing the filling, the raisins and pine nuts were done toasting so I removed them to a bowl and chopped them once they cooled a bit.  I had to use a spatula to break up the ball of meat that will develop as you process the meat paste to make sure everything was chopped up well.  Once I'd processed the meat paste and mixed it up with the cauliflower rice, raisins and pine nuts, I lined my 3 quart saucepan with the grape leaves that had softened.  

And now it was time to get down to business: rolling the dolmas.  Melissa has a great video online demonstrating how to roll the dolmas which is the most intimidating part of this process.  She says to put the shiny side of the leave facing down.  Both sides of the leaf looked pretty shiny to me, so I figured she meant the side that didn't have the veins of the leaf as prominent.  

The rolling isn't really difficult, but the leaves are delicate.  As you need to wrap the portion of filling tightly, I found that I needed to be careful not to rip the leaves.

As I rolled them, I put them into my saucepan.  

Once I filled the bottom of my pan, I decided to stop rolling.  I still had about half the filling left.  I arranged my lemon slices on top of them.  

I topped the lemons with the largest plate that would fit in my pan which was a salad plate.  

I boiled a kettle of water and poured it over the dolmas and waited for them to simmer.  Unfortunately, my pan has a stainless lid so I had a hard time watching the pan to make sure it didn't go int a full boil. I did the best I could.  

After 30 minutes, this is what I had.  Another lesson, don't put dolmas in your pan where your saucer/plate doesn't cover or they will float.  

I very very carefully removed the saucer and drained the pan of the water.  This is pretty difficult to do without dumping dolmas in the sink or burning yourself.  I poured the egg and lemon juice mixture over the dolmas the first time I made the dolmas and I was a bit put off by the globs of cooked egg. The second time I made them, I used a silicone basting brush to apply the egg/lemon mixture and this insured that the dolmas were more evenly coated but there were still egg globs.  Coating the dolmas with the egg/lemon mixture is optional, but based on my taster's comments, I'd not skip it.  

I refrigerated the dolmas overnight and plated a few the next morning with some extra virgin olive oil and salt.  

Accessibility & Cost of Ingredients:  This is not an inexpensive endeavor.  However, as this seems to be most appropriate as a company/party dish and not a regular one, the expense might be worth it for a special occasion.  Of course the vegetable components you can find fairly inexpensively at your "big box" grocery store.  

Ground lamb:   The ground lamb was $8.99/lb.  
Grape Leaves:  They were $5.69 at Whole Foods.  I checked my "big box" store and they were $6.99. 
Pine Nuts:  Did you know there's a pine nut shortage?  If you can find pine nuts in the bulk section at Whole Foods, buying just enough for the recipe will run you about $2.50.  If they are out in the bulk department, a small jar at Whole Foods will run you $4.99.  I checked at my "big box" and they wanted a jaw dropping $9.99 for a itty bitty jar of them.  Ouch.  The pine nuts are optional in the recipe but they do add good flavor.  
Spices:  Luckily, I had all of the spices needed in my pantry.  This could add expense if your pantry isn't as well stocked. 

Preparation & Cooking Time:  It took me 33 minutes to get to the point of starting to wrap the dolmas.  It took me 28 minutes to wrap enough dolmas to line the bottom of my 3 quart saucepan.  This was only about half the filling mixture.  Grand total for preparation time was one hour and one minute. I cooked the dolmas for 30 minutes.  I then chilled the dolmas over night. 

So, it took me significantly more time to prepare these than the stated 35 minutes of preparation time to only make about 1/2 the filling mixture.  I'm sure that this time would go down with experience making them or if you had kitchen help.  

Clean Up:    Have your dishwasher empty and ready to fill with your food processor parts and bowls.  

The Paleo Review:  Thumbs Up!  After finishing making them, it was hard to not taste them until the next morning.  As this is kind of a party dish, I took these dolmas into work.  At first, I just thought Martha, my frequent taster, was going to try them, but 3 other coworkers joined in on the tasting.  None are paleo eaters.  After plating them with extra virgin olive oil and salt I waited for their reactions.  

Martha:  "Oh those are good.  Lemony.  Really good with the salt and olive oil.  Say I L-O-V-E-D them."

Sylvia:  Sylvia thought that the salt and extra virgin olive oil made the flavor pop.  She also liked the sweetness of the raisins.  

Judd:  I was shocked Judd would try them as he is not the foodie sort, but he jumped right in and also thought they were really good.  

Sonia:  Again, really good.  

I think the verdict is that these dolmas are worth the effort.  The process of making them really isn't that difficult, but you do have to take time and care in doing it.  Before making these for company, I'd probably make at least a part sample batch to get your rolling and cooking method down.  

I have a few lessons to share as a first time dolma maker that might help you if you decide to give this recipe a try:  

1.  Make sure to measure out the spice blend.  Hopefully, none of you would ever go into recipe cruise control and do this like I did, but I thought its worth saying.  Tragic results.  Tragic.  

2.  Only put as many dolmas in the pan as your saucer/plate weight will cover.  Those that are not under the plate will float and unwrap.  I found that I could re-wrap some of my floaters but they weren't as pretty as the ones that were secure under the plate.  

3.  Watch the pot and use a pot with a glass lid if you have one to make sure that the water doesn't go into a boil.  

4.  Stack the dolmas in layers so that you can cook more in one batch if your pan depth will allow.  She doesn't mention this in the recipe, but I checked with Melissa and she said that stacking is great.  This will help with time if you decide to make a full batch.  Good news dolma lovers!  

5.  Be super super super careful when you remove your saucer weight when you drain the hot water from the pan after the dolmas have cooked.  Don't be hero!  It's OK to lose a few dolmas to the garbage disposal before you burn yourself!  

If you've been afraid to try dolmas, don't be.  Give it a try!  Melissa has placed this recipe on her blog, but you really should get a copy of Well Fed 2 to enjoy it and her other great recipes.