Dolma, dolmadakia, dolmasi, in whatever language, add something different and delicious to the table. We know them as stuffed grape leaves, but dolma–“stuffed thing” from the Turkish–is basically a stuffed vegetable dish that can be found in the countries that belonged to the Ottoman Empire and surrounding regions, including many Arab countries, Iran and the Caucasus, as well as Central and South Asia. It is common to stuff eggplant, zucchini, tomato and pepper in these countries, but it is the grape leaf that most English-speaking people recognize as the dolma.
The filling consists of rice and sometimes meat, depending on the region, and is flavored with onion and a variety of herbs and spices. Which herbs and spices? Again, that depends on the region.
Serbian-style dolma are called sarmice, which always confused me because the word sounds like a diminutive of sarma, the cabbage roll that is ubiquitous in Eastern Eauropean cuisines. However, both dishes involve minced meat and rice encased in an edible wrapper. Cabbage rolls are cooked in a sauce spiced with sweet paprika, and in Serbia stuffed grape leaves can be too, although bechamel is also a common adornment. I like them plain, with a dollop of strained yogurt doctored with a bit of lemon.
The filling is cooked beforehand, and it takes a bit of time to fill the leaves, but these sarmice are easy to make and are a great as an appetizer or a complete meal. I usually make a big pot and then freeze any leftovers in individual containers for a quick lunch.
Serbian-style Stuffed Grape Leaves
Makes 20 stuffed grape leaves
40 grape leaves (from a jar)
1 pounds of lean ground pork
1 cup white rice
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
2 teaspoons Vegeta seasoning *
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1) Soak the grape leaves in water for at least half an hour to get rid of the salt from the brine. In the meantime, cook the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until soft.
2) Cook the rice. In a separate pan, brown the pork until it is cooked through and no longer pink. Put the meat and rice in a large mixing bowl. Add the onions, parsley, an seasonings. Mix thoroughly.
3) As you work, pat each grape leaf on a kitchen towel to get rid of the excess water. Take two grape leaves and trim off any tough stems. Overlap the bottom of one leaf halfway over the bottom of the other. Add a tablespoon or two of the filling, depending on the size of your leaves. Fold in each side of the grape leaves, lengthwise. Then roll up from bottom to top. Place in the bottom of a 9-inch round cooking pot with the folded side down. Repeat with the rest of the grape leaves.
4) Pour water over grape leaves to cover completely. Place a plate on top of the stuffed grape leaves to keep them from floating or unraveling. Cook, covered, for about an hour, or until the water evaporates.
5) Serve with yogurt, sour cream, or bechamel sauce.
* Vegeta is a seasoning from Croatia that can be purchased in most European delis and supermarkets. It can be replaced with salt, to taste.