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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.
When most North Americans think of phyllo, Greek food usually comes to mind; spanakopita, bougatsa, baklava, and various other turnovers and pies that are eaten all over the Greek Isles. But phyllo pastry is popular throughout the Balkans, in Slavic cuisines, as well as in the Middle East. From Armenia to Turkey, phyllo stuffed pastries can be found alongside breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or simply enjoyed as snack food.
One of my favorite versions is this cheese pie eaten throughout the regions of the former Yugoslavia. I always looked forward to the nights when my mother was too tired to make a three course meal and baked this pie, serving it with a simple salad. She always had phyllo dough on hand. Layered with eggs and cheese and baked for half an hour, it was a quick dinner that also tasted great leftover for breakfast.
We’re lucky, my mother and I, because whenever we yearn to make this pie all we have to have to do is go to the corner store and pick up a package of the flaky pastry and we’re halfway to dinner. Not too long ago, the woman in my family had to make the phyllo dough from scratch because it wasn’t available in the shops. If you haven’t seen anyone make phyllo before, it’s a truly fascinating yet laborious process. I used to watch my Aunt Maria with awe as she stretched the dough across the whole length of the dining room table, coaxing it down over the edges, until it was so thin you could see through it. She would then rub it lovingly with olive oil until it gleamed like white satin. The baked product result was amazing, crispy and bubbling, with silky soft layers in between–almost like a rustic puff pastry. Now that supermarket phyllo is available everywhere in Serbia, no one bothers making it anymore. I’m sad to say that this store-bought phyllo is the same kind you can buy here, and its in no way comparable to the real deal. If you ever get a chance to try real homemade phyllo, you will know what I mean.
I plan to make my own phyllo one day. I’m psyching myself up for it. I have a recipe for Cretan phyllo from Aglaia Kremezi’s wonderful book The Food of the Greek Isles. It’s a modern version, requiring a food processor. Although the recipe says to roll the dough out as thinly as possbible, nowhere does it say it has to be six feet long, like your kitchen table! Perhaps I can convince my mother to give me a tutorial. I’m going to let you know how it goes.
For now, I’m going to keep making this cheese pie whenever I have an extra ten mintues and some phyllo leaves in the freezer.
Balkan Style Cheese Pie
1/2 pound (500g) cottage cheese
1/2 pound (500g) feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup (150ml)club soda
1/4 cup (75ml) olive or canola oil
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
8 phyllo leaves
You can omit the salt if you find the mixture salty enough from the feta. I personally like this pie on the salty side. The club soda helps make the pie light and puffy.
1) In a large bowl mix together the cheese, eggs, club soda, oil, and salt with a spatula until well combined.
2) Grease a 9-inch pie pan or spray with non-stick cooking spray. Place two sheets of phyllo, one crossed over the other, over the pan and gently tuck in. With a ladle, spoon over some of the cheese mixture.
3)Fold the corners of the phyllo over the filling.
4) Pour over some more of the cheese mixture.
5) Repeat twice, alternating the phyllo leaves with the cheese mixture. Pour any leftover filling over top layer.
6) Bake at 375F for about 30 minutes, or until top is golden and pie has puffed up.
6) Cool until lukewarm and serve.
In Balkan countries, this cheese pie is often eaten with plain yogurt. You can serve it for breakfast with some fruit, or alongside a salad for a light meal.
For variation, sprinkle layers with fresh spinach leaves, sauteed mushrooms, or browned ground lamb or pork.
Some notes on working with phyllo:
* Defrost phyllo overnight in the refrigerator for best result. Bring to room temperature before using.
*Do not remove the phyllo leaves from the plastic packaging until you are ready to use them, or they will dry out.
*Phyllo dries out very easily. While you are working, cover the unused sheets with a damp tea towel to prevent them from drying out.
*Phyllo is fragile but forgiving. In this dish it doesn’t matter if you tear the leaves. Also, in most recipes tears or breaks don’t matter on the inside layers. Any large holes can be patched with pieces of dough and then brushed with melted butter before shaping and baking.