Stuffed grape leaves are a delicious part of the Mediterranean cuisine.  And whether you call them dolma, dolmades, sarma, japrak or mahshi warak enab, they are found all over the Middle East, the Caucasus and even all the way over to the Balkans.  Several different regions seem to claim dolma as their own (Greece, Turkey and Armenia come to mind), and they are certainly a lot of regional variations.

What goes into these much-loved leaf rolls?  One recipe that I found for Herzegovenian japrak  calls for ground veal, rice, port and mint as the main ingredients.  An interesting note is that they actually substituted kale leaves for the grape leaves.  Another recipe, this time a Turkish recipe for etli sarma, uses ground lamb or beef, onions, rice, parsley and mint.  The writer also mentions that green or red cabbage leaves can be substituted for grape leaves.  A Lebanese recipe uses chick peas in place of meat and adds tomatoes and green onions to the usual rice, onions and mint.  And an Armenian recipe for dolma/tolma  claims that dolma are the "most Armenian dish" and is very similar to the Turkish recipe, with a few different herbs.

This is one of my own recipes for a basic stuffed grape leaf.

1 lb 90% lean ground beef
1 cup basmati rice
1 bunch mint
1 small bunch dill
2-3 lemons
1 jar grape leaves (1 lb - 50 leaves)
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Our first step is to fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil.  Add the juice of one lemon to the water.

While the water is heating, chop your onion as finely as you can.  If the pieces are too large, they will make rolling the leaves hard later. Save a few sprigs of mint and dill and finely chop the rest.
Heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan and saute onions until they are almost transparent.  Add the rice and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, another minute or so, until fragrant but not browned.
In a large bowl, combine the meat, rice mixture and herbs.  Add freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste (1-2 tsp).


By this point, your water should be heated.  Take it off the heat and drain and rinse the jarred grape leaves.  Soak them in the hot water for about 4 minutes.
Take the leaves out of the pot using a slotted spoon and stack them on a cutting board.  Be sure to save any tiny or torn leaves. 

 Now it's time to make the dolma.  First, take a leaf that isn't torn and spread it over the palm of your hand.  Place a tablespoon or two of the filling (depending on the size of your leaf) in the middle.

 Next, fold one side of the leaf over the filling.

Now the other side.

Make sure the sides cover the filling well.

Now roll the leaf tightly from the bottom up.

Place the dolma on a plate while you finish rolling the rest of the leaves.

Here's where you will use all the torn or tiny leaves that you saved.  Line the bottom of the pot with about half of them.  This will prevent the dolma from sticking to the pot and burning.

Pack the dolma into the pot tightly, in as many layers as needed to fit them all in.  If they are not tightly packed, they will unroll during the cooking time.

When you have all the stuffed leaves in the pot, cover with the remaining grape leaves and herbs.

 Now cover the layers with a heavy dish.  The weight will keep the dolma from getting loose and floating around, unrolling themselves.
Cover with water to the edge of the dish and simmer gently for 35 minutes.  Keep an eye on the water level and add a little more if the level gets too low during cooking.

At the end of the cooking time, take out one stuffed grape leaf and check to see if the meat and rice are done.  If not, continue cooking for another 5-10 minutes.

When the dolma are done, remove them carefully to a serving platter and serve hot or cold, depending on your personal preference.  You can also make a garlic-yogurt sauce to serve with them and serve them as an appetizer, side dish or part of a spread of similar dishes and salads known as mezze (similar to tapas).

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