Stuffed grape leaves are a well-recognized and popular dish in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions. Iranians, Turks, Syrians, Armenians, Lebanese, Greeks, and Iraqis have been making them since about the 17th century, albeit with many variations in the name, choice of ingredients, flavor profile, and presentation.
Dolmeh (Farsi), Dolma (Turkish), Dolmades (Greek)
You are likely to see rice and herbs as the main filling for most, while others include ground meat, yellow split peas, and other ingredients. Most are rolled into a small log, while some are formed into a square shape.
In Persian cuisine, the term Dolmeh is most associated with stuffed grape leaves, though it also includes all the dishes that are “stuffed”. For example, Dolmeh can be stuffed eggplants, bell peppers, cabbage leaves, or onions, all of which are cooked in their own specific sauces.
In my humble and clearly biased opinion, what makes the Iranian version uniquely different and a notch above the rest is the addition of ground meat and yellow split peas. Ah, but it’s not just that! These tasty little morsels are then cooked in a broth with a classic Persian signature that introduces something sweet (sugar, honey, or date molasses), and something sour (vinegar, lemon, or verjuice). The Dolmeh is then finished off with the addition of saffron to the broth.
To say that making stuffed grape leaves is a labor-intensive pursuit that requires patience and some degree of skill is to state the obvious. You can easily purchase them at grocery store delis or buy them in a can (gasp)! However, given that the commercially prepared versions are often filled with only rice and herbs, and none of the familiar Persian ingredients and methods, I often find myself feeling disappointed and missing the slightly sweet and tart flavors.
Luckily, grape leaves can now be purchased in many grocery stores all tightly rolled up in a jar filled with brine. The main challenge with the purchased leaves is not only taking them out of the jar to begin with, but also dealing with the imperfections and size variations that are bound to be part of the product. So when I finally take all the leaves out of the jar, I will spend some time sorting them by size and identifying the imperfections. All the small, broken, and torn-up pieces can be paired up and used together to ensure the stuffing is securely contained.
Before grape leaves became a global phenomenon you would have to either purchase them fresh from the market or know someone with a grapevine to harvest their tender spring leaves. When using fresh leaves, you would first have to parboil them in salted water for a few minutes before stuffing them.
There is really no secret or trick that will get these leaves stuffed quickly or without a lot of labor! I have often referenced how “laboring over food is a Persian virtue”, which I try and uphold as a reminder of who I am and where I come from. While talking to my mom, I also learned that my grandmother would not only roll these leaves tightly but also individually tie them with string to ensure that they would hold their shapes! A practice that I am afraid I have not embraced, quite yet!
Dolmeh is often served as a side dish or as an appetizer with flatbread and yogurt. It is also traditional to display them on a serving platter topped with crispy fried onions and lightly sauteed barberries.
Dolmeh Barg Mo
- 1/4 cup yellow split peas
- 1/4 cup rice
- 1 cup finely chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup finely chopped tarragon
- 1/4 cup finely chopped basil
- 1/4 cup finely chopped mint
- 1/4 cup finely chopped dill
- 1/4 cup finely chopped savory
- 4 green onions, finely chopped
- 1/2 pound ground beef or lamb
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper, ground
- 1 teaspoon turmeric, ground
- 1 jar grape leaves, will need 25-35 pieces
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup sugar, adjust to your taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron in 2 tablespoons of warm water
- Place the yellow split peas and 3 cups of water in a medium sized pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the peas are mostly cooked. Strain and place in a large mixing bowl.
- Place the rice in 2 cups of boiling water and parboil for 5 minutes. Strain and add to the mixing bowl.
- Finely chop the herbs and green onions in the food processor or by hand and add to the mixing bowl.
- Add the ground meat, grated onion, salt, pepper, turmeric and gently mix the ingredients together. Take care to not over-mix, so that the rice and yellow split peas remain visible and whole.
- Place a few grape leaves on a clean surface and place 1 tablespoon of the filling on top of each piece.
- With each piece, fold the bottom 2 edges over the filling, then tightly fold in the sides to ensure the filling is well secured within the leaf. Lightly pressing on the filling, roll the leaf away from you until all of the leaf is rolled around the filling and tucked in.
- Repeat until all the filling has been rolled into the grape leaves.
- Carefully pack the Dolmeh in a single layer in a large pan and cover with enough water so that they are completely submerged. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour.
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the vinegar and sugar and pour over the Dolmeh. Check to ensure that the Dolmeh are at least 1/2 way covered with liquid.
- Cover and cook for another 30 minutes. Keep in mind that there should still be a little bit of sauce left behind at this stage.
- Pour the saffron water over the Dolmeh, remove from the heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes.
- Dolmeh can be served hot, warm, room temperature or cold!
- Dolmeh are typically served with Persian flat breads and a side of yogurt.